Guide to remaining calm during stressful times: Harvard Medical School
December 12, 2008 — Lately, every day seems to bring a new cause for worry — the mortgage crisis, the struggling economy, rising unemployment. And on top of all that, the holiday season (a recurring source of stress) is about to begin. This constant barrage of disturbing news and emotional hurdles can have a big impact on health.
Although you won't find the word “stress” anywhere on the list of the 10 leading causes of death in America, many highly-regarded studies link chronic stress to ailments such as heart disease, stroke, and a weakened immune system.
“Stress doesn't just make you feel tense and edgy, it can actually impair your health,” says Dr. Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. “Thankfully, there's plenty we can do on our own to reduce stress in our lives.” The Harvard Medical School Portable Guide to Stress Relief, a free guide offered by Harvard Health Publications, provides helpful tips on how to start.
Of course, sometimes just thinking about embarking on such a program can feel overwhelming. Don't freeze in your tracks. Instead, follow Dr. Miller's suggestion to start small.
One stress-management technique that may work for you is a form of deep breathing known as the relaxation response. Another useful approach, known as cognitive restructuring, aims to change patterns of negative thinking. Not only will these strategies help you feel calmer, they may also reduce your blood pressure.
The free guide from Harvard Health Publications, culled from the pages of the special health report, Stress Management: Approaches for Preventing and Reducing Stress, provides detailed suggestions for soothing anxiety and worry. Whether you have one minute or half an hour, The Harvard Medical School Portable Guide to Stress Relief will teach you ways to manage the strains of your day. It describes 10 common stressors and how to defuse their impact and offers information on how to use meditation to lower stress levels. You will also find step-by-step instructions for "mini-relaxation" routines, organized according to how much free time you have available. To begin, try the sample mini-relaxations that follow:
De-stressing when you've got one minute
• Place your hand just beneath your navel so you can feel the gentle rise and fall of your belly as you breathe. Breathe in slowly. Pause for a count of three. Breathe out. Pause for a count of three. Continue to breathe deeply for one minute, pausing for a count of three after each inhalation and exhalation.
• Or alternatively, while sitting comfortably, take a few slow deep breaths and quietly repeat to yourself “I am” as you breathe in and “at peace” as you breathe out. Repeat slowly two or three times. Then feel your entire body relax into the support of the chair.
When you've got two minutes
•Count down slowly from 10 to zero. With each number, take one complete breath, inhaling and exhaling. For example, breathe in deeply saying “10” to yourself. Breathe out slowly. On your next breath, say “nine,” and so on. If you feel lightheaded, count down more slowly to space your breaths further apart. When you reach zero, you should feel more relaxed. If not, go through the exercise again.
Also in this guide:
• Using a gratitude journal to turn your focus away from negative thoughts and feelings
• Learning to straighten out cognitive distortions
• Helping your children or yourself reduce stress with a “worry box.”
The Harvard Medical School Portable Guide to Stress Relief is available to download for free from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard MedicalSchool, at www.health.harvard.edu/stress-relief.
Go to www.health.harvard.edu to find information on other Harvard Health Publications, including:
• Stress Management: Approaches for preventing and reducing stress: www.health.harvard.edu/SC
• Coping with Anxiety and Phobias: www.health.harvard.edu/AP
• Alcohol Use and Abuse: www.health.harvard.edu/AUA
• Understanding Depression: www.health.harvard.edu/UD
Source: Harvard Health Publications, www.health.harvard.edu