NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a nationwide poll in March and early April to find common sources of stress.
They surveyed more than 2,500 adults across the US, finding that the usual culprits topped the list: too many responsibilities, finances, and work issues. Personal health difficulties, as well as health problems in the family were also commonly cited.
One aspect of the study that caught my attention was how stress affects people’s behavior, particularly in areas that can negatively impact health. People who reported a great deal of stress in the previous month cited difficulty sleeping. Eating less and exercising less were also common changes.
Stress hits each of us differently. Some of us feel it in our bodies. Others just can’t stop worrying. Knowing how you experience stress can help you find the most effective methods to relax.
Back when I was doing research at Harvard, we called the kind of stress that expresses itself in the body “somatic,” for example, getting butterflies in your stomach, indigestion, a racing heart, or the jitters.
But some people are prone to experiencing their stress mentally. Worrisome thoughts that keep you up at night or that continually intrude into your focus during the day are defined as “cognitive” stress.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School used the scale for cognitive and somatic anxiety that we devised at Harvard to sort patients who were being taught a variety of stress-fighting methods, including mindfulness meditation and yoga. The bottom line: there is no single best way to get there – each of us has our own path. Not everyone will benefit from a body-focused relaxer like yoga, just as meditation may not be the most effective way to fight stress for every person.
But finding a technique to help you relax is worth the effort. When we calm down from stress, we are shifting our nervous system from physiological arousal to the relaxation and recovery state known as parasympathetic activity. In this state, our minds are more open and clear, our heart rate slows, blood pressure lowers, and our muscles release tension.
Two tips on practicing relaxation techniques:
1. Shop around at first to find a method that you enjoy. You don’t have to take a psychological test to find out which method will work best for you. Make the match through simple trial and error. After all, you are the final judge of what will help you.
2. Practice every day. Find a time in your daily routine that you can set aside just for this – whether during your drive to work or during personal quiet time first thing in the morning. If you develop a strong daily practice, you’ll be able to call on it to help you calm down when you need to the most – right after those hassles that get you so tense in the first place.
The results may be subtle at first. You might find, for instance, you’re no longer waking up at 4 a.m. obsessing about that rude person, or that you aren’t yelling at the kids when they dawdle getting ready in the morning. It’s harder to notice problems that don’t happen than ones that do – but that’s not such a bad thing.
I developed the CD Relax: 6 Techniques to Lower Your Stress to suit a variety of personal preferences. You’re welcome to listen to sample guided exercises here and here. You can also watch my interview with LeadersIn on ways to manage a frazzled state.
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