Stress is one of the great challenges of modern times. Unless we learn how to manage it, we may age prematurely and increase our chances of suffering from a range of minor ailments, including fatigue, indigestion, headaches, constipation and allergies, as well as life-threatening problems like cancer and heart disease.
In and of itself, stress is not a ‘bad’ thing. It’s part of our body’s natural chemical response to a ‘fight-or-flight’ stimulus geared to meet an immediate challenge. This autonomic (automatic) physical response includes the release of hormones like catecholamines, which include dopamine, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), as well as glucocorticoids like cortisol—the primary ‘stress hormone,’ which is also known as ‘hydrocortisone’ in its synthetic form—and androgens like DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone).
In fact, acute stress—say, when we have to meet a deadline—actually boosts the immune system.
Nevertheless, these chemicals—however natural—become a slow-motion poison when stress is chronic, when the body is continually and inappropriately in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. Levels of cortisol rise during periods of chronic stress, and this results in a fall of DHEA levels. Such a chemical imbalance can eventually lead to heart disease, hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid), prostate and breast cancers, menstrual irregularities, osteoporosis, and autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and rheumatoid arthritis.1
In fact, a direct connection was found between stress and coronary heart disease when researchers studied 10,308 London-based male and female civil servants.2
Pioneering research by Rollin McCraty and others at the Institute of HeartMath, in Boulder Creek, California, supports the idea that stress isn’t ‘all in the head.’ In one study of 26 participants, he found that the heart is a receptive organ that can receive and respond to emotionally arousing stimuli, sometimes even before they happen.3
The standard approach
This uncertainty as to what exactly chronic stress is makes it difficult for doctors to decide on the best way to deal with people who suffer from the condition. In very severe cases, they may prescribe an antianxiety drug like the benzodiazepine diazepam (Valium) or a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI)-type of antidepressant like fluoxetine (Prozac). But often, they may simply recommend that the patient either change the situation that’s causing the chronic stress response or change the response to it.
Sometimes changing the situation is enough—for instance, moving house if you live right next door to a noisy neighbor—but often, stress is caused by a multitude of minor daily events that are each irritating little stressors.4 This suggests that stress, which is cumulative, can also become your body’s habitual chemical response—and this habit is what needs to be changed.
The technical term for stress control is ‘allostasis,’ which is the body’s ability to achieve harmony through change. It was coined by Sterling and Eyre in 1988 to describe “an additional process of re-establishing homeostasis”.5
Fortunately, there are many proven methods that can help us achieve allostasis by altering our response to life’s events and challenges. This suggests that stress has everything to do with our response to things that happen to us in life as well as our response to how we perceive our place in the world.
While conventional medicine has few solutions, many disciplines in alternative medicine have solid evidence of success.
Try one or more of the following six proven stress-busters.
1) Police your thoughts with mind techniques
There is plenty of evidence that various meditation and mind techniques can be highly effective in changing our response to events that would usually stress us out. One of the most effective forms of meditation is kundalini yoga meditation. In one small study, the yoga meditation group showed greater improvements in mood, stress levels and obsessive–compulsive disorder than those using relaxation plus mindfulness after just three months. What’s more, these improvements were still evident at the end of the study 15 months later.6
Transcendental Meditation (TM), the mantra-based meditation technique brought to the West by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, is another effective method for reducing stress, and may even help us live longer too.
According to the pooled data from two randomized controlled studies of 202 patients at high risk of developing full-blown hypertension (high blood pressure), those who practiced TM over the nearly 19-year follow-up period had a 23 percent better survival rate, a 30 percent decrease in fatal heart problems and a 49 percent decrease in deaths due to cancer. The researchers concluded that the stress-reducing approach of TM was a main reason for these patients’ longevity and good health.7
Another effective technique is mindfulness meditation, the discipline espoused as long ago as 1,000 BC by Shakyamuni (Gautama Siddhartha), the founder of modern Buddhism, whereby you maintain clear moment-to-moment awareness of what’s happening internally and externally, rather than coloring your interpretation with your emotions or being engaged ‘elsewhere.’
More than just concentration, mindfulness requires that you police the focus of your concentration and maintain that concentration in the present. With practice, you can silence the constant inner chatter of your mind and become able to concentrate on your sensory experiences, no matter
how mundane, even if it’s just eating your breakfast.
In one review of three Buddhism-related techniques—mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy (MBCT) and Zen meditation—studies of MBSR and MBCT showed that these techniques are able to reduce depression and anxiety, and “decrease general psychological distress,” while the researchers concluded that MBSR and Zen meditation “have a role in pain management.”8
Mindfulness meditation was also able to help lift physical and mental symptoms of depression in 91 women suffering from fibromyalgia by the end of an eight-week study .9
In a pooled analysis of seven studies, mindfulness meditation apparently helped to improve the participants’ ability to sleep, because it was able to help them “self-manage and reframe worrisome and intrusive thoughts.”10
MBCT fared just as well in a study of 11 patients with generalized anxiety disorder, all of whom reported dramatic reductions in anxiety, worry, depression and mood swings by the end of a course of treatment.11
Guided imagery is another effective way to reduce stress. This technique was tested in 176 individuals, all of whom had been practicing guided imagery before the trial started. The researchers found that it was most effective among those who were the most adept.12 And another study of guided imagery, this time involving 148 participants, came to a similar conclusion. Again, it was more effective among those who were more experienced with the technique and who were better at doing it.13
Even biofeedback using muscle relaxation training can help. Although it failed to lower the perceived stress levels in women who underwent the training for eight weeks, it did reduce the physiological symptoms of stress, such as rapid pulse rate, raised blood pressure and tense muscles.14
2) Get physical
Touch is another simple and effective way of reducing stress. Indeed, even those who were hugged a great deal in their childhood by their parents are better able to cope with stress as adults.15
It may have something to do with the release of oxytocin, a nonapeptide hormone that can reduce stress levels as well as blood pressure and cortisol. Oxytocin release is stimulated by touch and also by having a positive outlook, and feeling a sense of warmth and empathy toward others.16
Massage therapy is a highly effective stress reliever, even more so than guided relaxation. A group of 54 people aged 60 and over tested the two methods. The participants received either massage—including Swedish, neuromuscular and myofascial massage—or guided relaxation, which incorporated visualization and muscle relaxation, for 50 minutes in twice-weekly sessions for four weeks. At the end of the trial, the massage group reported significant improvements in their levels of anxiety, depression, vitality and general health compared with the relaxation group.17
Gentle touch massage also works, as proven in 147 participants with ‘psychological problems.’ After four treatments, all reported significant improvements in their stress, anxiety and depression levels.18
Another technique is HeartTouch, which teaches participants how to become conscious of their thoughts and feelings, and how to reduce the stress they create through touch.
Its effectiveness was tested in 58 nurses who practiced the HeartTouch technique for a month, and their results were compared with a group of 40 nurses who did not use the technique. The HeartTouch group reported significant improvements in “stress, spiritual well-being, and hardiness.”19
But you don’t have to have these specific treatments if they’re not available. Even something as simple as a 15-minute back massage once a week can reduce stress and anxiety.
When 60 nurses were recruited into just such a massage program, after five weeks those in the massage group reported a significant lowering of stress and anxiety, while levels in the control group increased.20
Doing it yourself can be as effective as having somebody else massage you. One study of 46 women tested the effectiveness of foot self-massage using reflexology. After massaging their own feet for six weeks, the researchers reported a “statistically significant” reduction in depression, perceived stress and systolic blood pressure, with increases in natural-killer cells (so boosting immune responses) and immunoglobulin G (antibodies that protect against infections).21
Combining massage with music and aromatherapy can also reduce stress levels, as it did in a study of emergency-room nurses, who occupationally suffer from high levels of anxiety, especially during the winter months.22
And don’t forget ancient traditional techniques like acupuncture. Its modernized version, electroacupuncture, administered at both 5 Hz and 100 Hz, can reduce mental stress, as demonstrated by a study of 25 volunteers who showed signs of lowered stress after doing difficult mental arithmetic calculations.23
3) Get moving
Strenuous physical exercise can help stressed people relax and also lower blood pressure in those who are hypertensive—with immediate effects. In one study, 30 participants with either normal or high blood pressure all showed blood-pressure reductions, which were greater in those with high blood pressure, and all were feeling more relaxed even after just a single session on a gym bike.24
But you don’t have to feel the burn to lower stress. Tai chi, a gentle controlled-movement Eastern form of exercise, is very effective for lowering stress levels, blood pressure, heart rate and amounts of the stress hormone cortisol in saliva. After 21 beginners had been performing tai chi exercises for just 18 weeks, all showed improvements in both their objective measurements and the more subjective aspects of general health and psychological well-being.25
But the stress-busting form of exercise with the greatest amount of supportive evidence is undoubtedly yoga, which, like guided imagery, has the greatest effect among those who are the most adept.
One study plotted the brain activity of eight experienced yoga practitioners and found that their brain levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that induces relaxation and sleep, were higher (by 27 percent) after a 60-minute session. As depression and anxiety are associated with low GABA levels, the researchers recommend yoga as an effective way to treat those conditions.26
Yoga can even have beneficial effects after a relatively short time, helping one group of patients with anxiety disorders after just 10 days of daily yoga exercises.27
It can also help cancer patients who are going through the rigors of chemotherapy. Of 68 breast-cancer patients who were anxious and depressed because of their chemo- and radiotherapy, half did yoga while the other half were their non-yoga-practicing controls. Not only did those doing yoga report improvements in their anxiety and depression, but even their DNA was less damaged after radiotherapy compared with the controls.28
4) Connect with something greater than yourself
Stress primarily results from a sense of isolation—from our families, our community and even from our God.
A sense of connectedness and purpose are also powerful ways of countering stress, as researchers have repeatedly discovered when investigating people who are members of religious and social groups.
Those who have strong religious beliefs are better able to cope following a stroke. This was the conclusion of researchers who followed 132 post-stroke patients, chosen at random, being treated in the hospital to help them rehabilitate. Those who held to religious or spiritual beliefs had less anxiety and depression than those who were agnostic or atheist.29
A similar picture was seen among Croatian war veterans. Those who had strong religious beliefs were far less likely to attempt suicide and had less chronic post-traumatic stress than those with no religious faith.30
In fact, people who belong to a strong spiritual community, attend church regularly and engage in private prayer are almost never depressed or stressed, even when their income is low. These were the findings when researchers compared the psychological profiles of 230 older US-born and immigrant Latinos living in the US.31
Even those who don’t belong to a church but still hold religious or spiritual beliefs enjoy better mental equilibrium. In one study, patients with mood disturbances were divided into three groups. One group carried out spiritual exercises through a home-study course, another followed a meditation-based stress-reduction program and the third, the controls, were instructed to
At the end of eight weeks, those in the spiritual group had twice the improved scores on a questionnaire for mood states than did the meditation group, which still had reduced their scores by more than twice that of the controls. This positive effect continued for at
least four weeks after the study was stopped.32
Living in a close community can also protect against the stress of depression, as psychologists at Northwestern University discovered after examining the effects of tight-knit social groupings on a genetically inherited predisposition to depression.
The Northwestern team also made an unexpected discovery: the more tightly knit the population, the higher the percentage of people with the gene for depression.
In East Asia, at least 80 percent of the population are genetically susceptible to depression. According to the current culture–gene theory, correspondingly high levels of depression should exist among these populations.
Instead, the researchers found the opposite: among the highly susceptible populations, the actual prevalence of depression was significantly lower than in either Western Europe or the US.
The expectation of social support in these tight-knit Eastern cultures seemed to buffer people against any environmental stressors that should otherwise have triggered depression.33
So if you aren’t part of a community, join a group of any sort, whether a bowling team, a book club or something more organized like a church.
Stress can also be reduced by re-connecting and forgiving old wounds. When 99 people with psychological issues underwent an “emotional education program” for one year, with 47 others as controls, the education group showed large reductions in depression and stress while increasing positive outcomes such as mastery, empathy, emotional intelligence, forgiveness and spiritual experiences.34
Besides making human connections, having contact with a pet can help to calm us. In a study of 25 children (aged five to 18) who were in pain after surgery, those who had a visit from a dog while in the hospital said their pain levels were lower afterward.35
5) Take supplements and adaptogenic herbs
Certain supplements and herbs can help reduce stress. Adaptogens work directly on the body’s cells to stimulate the healing process and restore the body’s natural functions, although their role seems to be secondary, acting more like enablers for other approaches.
Ginkgo biloba and Panax ginseng can reverse biochemical responses to acute and chronic stress. In rats (so not necessarily in humans), Ginkgo is better for acute stress, whereas ginseng is better for chronic stress.36 A standardized leaf extract of Ginkgo can alleviate stress,37 while ginseng can effectively counteract the standard markers of stress, at least in mice.38 The Ayurvedic herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has also demonstrated adaptogenic, antistress properties.39
Suggested dosage: 20 drops of Siberian ginseng up to three times a day or three 400–500 mg capsules a day; 500 mg three times a day of ashwagandha as tablets or capsules Antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E, and the polyphenolic compounds found in berry fruit like strawberries and blueberries, can also help protect against the age-related physical and mental effects of stress—according to a review of rodent studies.40
Since B vitamins, zinc, calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, sulfur and molybdenum are all easily depleted by stress, make sure to supplement with a good multivitamin/mineral supplement, plus extra B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and zinc.
Suggested dosage: B-50 vitamin complex with 1,000 mcg of B12 and 20–50 mg/day of B6, vitamin C (at least 1 g/day), magnesium (250–500 mg/day), calcium (750 mg/day) and zinc (30 mg/day)
6) Try flower remedies and homeopathy
Rescue Remedy, that stalwart for stress and crises, available since 1930, actually works. Research at Miami University demonstrated that the Bach flower remedy reduced stress and anxiety in a group of more than a hundred participants who were put in a stressful situation. All were given either the remedy or a placebo, but it was the remedy that significantly reduced stress and anxiety.41
Another homeopathic combo—called L72 (made by Lehning)—is a combination of Ferula sumbul, Gaultheria procumbens, Cicuta virosa, Narthex asafoetida, Corydalis formosa, Ignatia amara, Valeriana officinalis, Delphinium staphysagria, Avena sativa and Hyoscyamus niger. According to one unpublished randomized controlled trial carried out by Lehning Laboratories in France in 1985, L72 drops fared just as well as diazepam (Valium), although the L72 users enjoyed significantly better sleep and had much lower pulse rates.
Accepting the challenge
Stress has rightly been described as a disease of modern life. While most of us believe it’s because of our hectic lifestyles, in fact, it may have more to do with the sense of isolation that we now experience as the nuclear family becomes less involved with the wider community.
It appears that the root emotions of stress are a sense of helplessness and loneliness, so it’s not surprising that touch and massage therapies, or belonging to a spiritual or social group, can do much to counteract these negative feelings. And meditation can help to still the emotions that stir up the dangerous chemical soup that can lead to heart disease and cancer.
Stress is a lifestyle disease, but in this sense: it is challenging you to decide how you wish to live your life, and to find ways to cope and respond to everyday events that don’t involve either running away or aggressively attacking them.
Keep a journal
Keeping a Stress Journal is an effective way to cope with your stress and make yourself more aware of the entire process. To create your journal, divide a sheet of paper into four columns with the following headings:
1) Cause of your stress
2) How you felt, physically and emotionally
3) How you acted in response
4) What you did to cope or feel better.
After a few days, you should start seeing patterns or themes about what makes you feel stressed (your stressors) and how you deal with them.
Another journal that can give you a different view of the way you respond to life events is a Gratitude Journal. As the name suggests, it’s a way to express gratitude for the people and events in your daily life. Unlike the Stress Journal, it doesn’t need a fixed format. It could be a daily essay in which you outline the things in your life for which you feel grateful. This could include anything from simply waking up in the morning, or having a job or a family (even if this is itself a cause of stress), or the fact that you have a nice home to live in.
The key is to keep writing at least several times a week and to keep it going. After a while, you may become aware of less obvious things for which you are grateful, such as the taste and smell of a hot cup of tea or coffee.
What is stress?
No one is absolutely certain what it is we mean by ‘chronic stress.’ Medicine still hasn’t come up with an agreed-upon definition, although the American Institute of Stress (www.stress.org) has arrived at two of the most commonly accepted descriptions of it: “physical, mental or emotional strain or tension”; and “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources that the individual is able to mobilize.”
Even the term itself has problematic roots. The pioneer of stress research, Slovakian endocrinologist Hans Selye (1907–1982), was the first to come up with the term ‘stress’—and ever after wished he hadn’t. At the time he coined the term, he wasn’t aware that the term had been in scientific use since the 17th century. Instead, he wished he had called it ‘strain.’
One person’s symptoms of stress will differ from those of another, including in their intensity and duration. In addition, we all have our own particular stress triggers, or ‘stressors,’ as Selye called them.
Rate your stress quotient
Here are some of the main symptoms of so-called chronic stress. Although it’s possible to have some of these symptoms without feeling chronically depressed, consider yourself stressed if you tick a majority of them:
- periods of irritability or anger
- apathy or depression
- constant anxiety
- irrational behavior
- loss of appetite
- comfort eating
- lack of concentration
- loss of sex drive
- increased smoking, drinking or use of recreational drugs
- excessive tiredness
- skin problems like eczema
- aches and pains from tense muscles
- increased pain from arthritis and other conditions
- heart palpitations
- feeling sick (nausea)
- stomach problems
- missed periods
Whistle a happy tune
Listening to music can help you relax and reduce stress levels—but what you listen to apparently matters.
Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is more effective than so-called New Age music, according to one study. When 63 students listened to either the Mozart or New Age ambient music, or read recreational magazines, for 28 minutes on three consecutive days, the Mozart listeners reported feeling higher levels of peace and lower levels of negative emotions than did the other two groups.1
Classical music also came out on top in a separate study of 56 college students who had gone through a stressful test before either listening to music of their choice or sitting in silence. Again, those who chose classical music reported higher levels of relaxation than those who listened to heavy metal or just sat in silence.2