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Though daily stress levels have remained somewhat consistent over the years, the percentage of people reporting extreme stress has risen sharply—18 percent in 2014 to 24 percent in 2015—with stress levels increasing in younger generations. Moreover, the physical and mental toll of stress is becoming more obvious, with 78 percent reporting they feel at least one symptom.
“Stress is never good. Your body releases a lot of hormones in response to stress—the big one is adrenaline. When adrenaline levels are high, your blood pressure goes up, you may not be able to sleep, your blood is more likely to clot, it’s more stress on your vessels and your heart, which can be more stressful on your brain and your kidneys,” says Dr. James Jollis, Cardiologist with UNC REX Healthcare.
There are also a handful of diseases that are purely stress-related, such as apical ballooning syndrome, which is often associated with an extremely stressful incident such as the death of a loved one. The heart beats so fast that it outstrips the ability of the blood vessels to supply the heart with oxygen, which damages the heart temporarily. Fortunately, the heart heals within a few weeks, but it underscores the incredible ability of stress to wreak havoc on the body.
Stress can also lead to unhealthy eating or poor sleeping habits, which can weaken our immune system, leading to acute or chronic health issues. “Stress accounts for over 80 percent of all illness I see in my practice,” says Dr. Marc Cutler, Clinical Director of Advanced Healthcare Solutions, an acupuncture center. “Stress is the biggest culprit in weakening the body so that disease can begin to occur.”
Unfortunately, sometimes people don’t address their stress until they experience a huge health event like a heart attack or stroke. Dr. Jollis sees it as an opportunity for intervention: “It’s a wake up call that changes lifestyles. You need to take time for yourself—take care of work, take care of family—stop burning the candle at both ends.”
He also underscores the importance of looking at the underlying issues that are causing stress. Many factors can lead to heart disease, but when severe stress is a contributor, evaluate the triggers. According to the American Psychological Association, the top three sources of stress are money, work and family. Clearly, these are issues you can’t avoid, and, indeed, much of the time sources of happiness, so how can one improve coping mechanisms? The good news is that there are many ways to address stress in one’s life that help improve both your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
From the body
Most medical and health experts will underscore the importance of exercise to help reduce stress. “Exercise is both a science and an art,” says Jessica Tucker, exercise physiologist at Rex Health. “Neurotransmitters are released regularly in acute and chronic exercise. Endorphins are released, feel-good chemicals.”
The concept isn’t new, just often overlooked in favor of easier, “quicker” fixes. Several different studies have shown exercise as a viable treatment of depression: a 1999 randomized study showed that depressed adults who took part in aerobic exercise improved as much as those treated with Zoloft, and a 2006 Boston University study evaluated adults who hadn’t experienced relief from SSRIs, a common type of antidepressant, finding that those who exercised more were almost twice as likely to go into remission.
“Doing it regularly helps manage daily stress, improves your breathing, decreases fear of rapid heart rate—that’s why exercise is so powerful,” says Tucker.
In an ideal world, everyone would be exercising for an hour a day. Of course, finding time to exercise is a common complaint, so Tucker suggests approaching exercise simply: “Stand more, sit less.” If you can’t carve out 30 minutes, do 10. What’s important to most health experts is that you don’t give up.
“Right now, the trend in exercise is high intensity to decrease the amount of time,” says Tucker. When working with clients, she encourages them to exercise for 30 minutes at a pace where you can only speak in broken sentences; that way, you know you are getting your heart rate up.
High-intensity exercise, however, isn’t the only way to experience stress-reducing health benefits. If you’re at work and feeling the effects of stress, hit pause and step outside. “It’s the same it’s been for 100 years,” says Tucker. “Take a walk outside. Change what you can hear, smell, see—you automatically change your breathing patterns. Ten minutes will change the stress experience.”
Plus, yoga continues to grow in popularity. Eighty million Americans are likely to try the ancient practice over the next year. And according to the U.S. Census, 15 to 20 percent of North Carolina’s population is already practicing it, while nationally the number of men hitting yoga studios has more than doubled.
“It’s a great tool to get people to connect what they’re feeling with how they’re moving,” says Tucker. “It’s just what the doctor ordered for busy women and men who have yet to discover it. We’re constantly partially attentive and tied to our electronic leashes, so focus on the moment because that’s what’s important.”
To the soul
The rising popularity of yoga has also increased interest in mindfulness and meditation. “Stress is one of the big motivators for getting people involved in meditation,” says David Machles, who teaches Meditation 101 at the Kadampa Center. Though the Buddhist practice isn’t focused on stress management, it’s a side benefit.
“What we focus on is the ability to recognize your own thoughts and emotions, analyze and change them,” he says, which can provide long-term benefits when it comes to the source of stress. However, in the near future as part of a meditation practice, you focus on breathing or visualizations “where you do a body scan and get body parts to physically relax. It slows your breathing down, slows your heart rate down, and decreases stress levels.”
Some who are interested in meditation may hesitate seeing it as a lifelong commitment requiring time and devotion. While this may be true for some, most can reap benefits within minutes. “Think of it the same way you do physical exercise. You don’t get up, decide to exercise and become a marathon runner. First, you get off the coach and walk a little,” says Machles. “It’s a mental muscle that we’re building. If you can’t do five minutes, do 30 seconds. Do five breaths a couple of times a day. You’ll see the benefit, and you’ll gradually want to do more.”
Mindfulness, an increasingly popular practice, is a way to incorporate principles of meditation throughout your day. “It scares people when I say this, but do it in your car,” says Machles. “Drive all the way home without thinking about anything but driving.” It’s harder than it seems but turning routine tasks into mindfulness practices can help give your brain a rest and focus your thoughts away from worries.
Dr. Cutler encourages his patients to follow what he calls his STAR program, which stands for “Stop, Take a deep breath, and Relax.” He recommends placing blue dot stickers in your environment—on your laptop, on a light switch, on your dashboard—and every time you see one of the dots remind yourself to take a deep breath and relax.
Every now and then, it’s important to take more than a moment to relax. Getting a massage can not only give you a much-needed break but also improve your wellbeing. “Massage helps our body tap into its natural healing process, by helping remove metabolic waste through our lymphatic system. It increases circulation of blood, and it increases dopamine and serotonin in our body—the “feel good” hormones,” says Lal Chand, owner of Athletic Edge Sports & Maintenance Massage, who works with members of the Carolina Ballet and UNC Football Team.
Different kinds of massage tackle stress differently, with some types offering more effective results. “We would recommend Swedish or Aromatherapy Massages because these treatments are specifically designed to relax muscles and allow for physical and mental relaxation,” says Carolyn Doe, Spa Director for The Umstead Spa. Their Piedmont Massage incorporates the use of Tai Balls filled with special herbs and spices that release aromas to help relax the mind and muscles, and create a general sense of balance and wellbeing.
The key, though, whether you’re meditating, exercising or escaping to a massage is taking time to focus on yourself. While it can seem that you don’t have a moment to take a break, being conscious of your own personal wellness needs will help you stave off more stress in the future. So get up from that desk, take a walk and breathe.
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