Last week, I discussed the body’s “fight or flight” reaction to stress, and how it can damage your health if it goes on too long. But you can take plenty of steps to minimize stress and its effects on your life, including lifestyle changes, exercise and natural treatments.
Breathing has long been associated with relaxation and pain control (think Lamaze birth breathing). When we are stressed, our breaths tend to be quicker and shallower; when we are asleep, or deeply relaxed, breaths deepen and slow down. If you intentionally slow your breathing, it tends to reduce blood pressure and generally slow the fight or flight response.
Three minutes of relaxed breathing is considered a good starting place, but studies show more benefit if the practice can be expanded to 10 or even 20 minutes. A common technique is to inhale slowly for a count of four, hold the breath in for another count of four, exhale for the same count, and then hold the breath out for a final round. This simple exercise can be done in a lot of places — I often do it on the drive home from work (with the radio turned off, especially the news.) For information on these techniques, check out the Relaxation Response program by Dr. Herbert Benson.
Walking is one of the best stress-relieving exercises, and has aerobic benefits as well. I usually recommend starting with whatever you are comfortable doing, and working up to at least a half hour a day. I also recommend yoga, even to my out of shape patients. You do not have to be able to put your ankles behind your neck to benefit from stretching. Any yoga center will have a beginner’s class, and the class often ends with a session of relaxing while lying on the floor — called the “corpse pose”.
Medications for stress have not been shown to be very helpful for most people, except for those with severe anxiety.
But natural treatments are commonly used and can be very effective. Acupuncture is great for relieving both acute and chronic stress. While the needles certainly have a lot of benefit, the 20-30 minutes of lying still in a dark room, without any kids or cellphones, has some benefit as well. Some patients use herbal supplements, including St. John’s Wort, with good results. However, because of quality issues and possible drug interactions, I recommend getting these through a doctor or herbalist trained to work with them.
A major cause of stress is chronic pain, especially from the joints and muscles. Treatments that ease this type of pain can only help lower stress levels. Manipulation, massage and other types of bodywork are all beneficial, and certainly safer than the anti-inflammatory drugs so commonly used.
Considering the huge benefits you can gain from controlling stress — fewer digestive problems, less stress on the heart and brain, better weight control and lower blood pressure — it certainly is worth the effort. Another benefit is a sense of control over your health. Many patients appreciate the fact that there are simple steps they can take to make a big difference in their own health.
But controlling stress, whether through lifestyle or treatment (and ideally both), takes a commitment to do these things regularly, on an ongoing basis. The most difficult part is the beginning, before you start to feel better. But once you start to notice the improvements, it is much easier to follow through.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.