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Left unchecked, stress can have significant effects on your overall health and well-being. Stress can impair your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections, and can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Pre-existing health concerns, like asthma or gastrointestinal problems, can be exacerbated by stress.
Stress can be divided into two different types: acute (for example, you're late for work) or chronic (coping with the death of a loved one, divorce, or a difficult job). Both types are associated with considerable impairment (see Table 1). In addition, stress may manifest as a physical, perceptual, emotional, or behavioral reaction (see Table 2).
Taking control of your response to stress
The first step in taking control of your stress levels involves identifying your stressors and your body's response to them. When you can recognize that you are stressed, you can use one of several relaxation techniques to reduce your stress levels (see Table 3).
Controlled breathing exercises also can be used to modify your response to stress.
First exercise: Be aware of your breath. As often as possible, bring your attention to your breath. Are you holding your breath? Are you breathing deeply? Try to imagine that your breathing cycle starts with exhaling not inhaling. Put cues around your environment to remind you to breathe. Notes or colored dots work well, just be sure to change them every three days or so, otherwise you will stop noticing them.
Second exercise: Diaphragmatic breathing. Get into a comfortable position. If you are sitting, place both feet on the floor and use a chair with good back support. If you lie down, place a pillow under your head and behind your knees. Try not to fall asleep unless you are using this exercise to relax before bed.
Place your hands on your abdomen. As you breathe in, push your abdomen out. Once you've reached full expansion, release your breath and let your abdomen relax naturally. Exhale through your mouth with a gentle sigh. Let your next exhalation follow naturally from the last breath.
Clear your mind and only focus on your breathing. If your attention wanders, try counting or saying inhale/exhale to yourself in your mind.
Third exercise: Meditation breathing. Follow the instructions for diaphragmatic breathing.
Focus your attention on the flow of your breath. Feel it enter your nostrils, roll into your body, and release from your lungs with expiration. Use all your senses to track your breath and do not use your mind for thinking. Try to focus your attention on the action in the moment. This type of practice is called mindfulness.
Use the in and out flow of your breath to focus your attention and send a message to yourself. You might say a word that is important to you, for example, calm, peace, or love. You could imagine breathing in peace with your inspiration and releasing tension with your exhalation.
Fourth exercise: Releasing breath. Get into a comfortable position and scan your body for tension. Take a deep breath in and with exhalation, release tension from that part of your body.
To increase the effect of this breathing technique, combine it with progressive muscle relaxation. This technique assumes that a muscle will relax more completely if it has been tensed first.
Once you are breathing comfortably, begin at the top, tensing your face or shoulders or making your hands into fists with your inspiration. Hold your tension and your breath for several seconds and then release your breath through your mouth, allowing the muscle you just tensed to go loose and limp. Continue one area at a time until you have gone through your whole body.
[If you find yourself feeling dizzy or a little numb on your hands and feet while practice these exercises, just breathe less deeply for a few minutes.]
The National Institute of Mental Health: www.nimh.nih.gov, (301) 443-4513.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: www.nccam.nih.gov, (301) 644-6226.
Center for Mind-Body Medicine: www.cmbm.org, (202) 966-7338.