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Stress and Health

You have had it! You feel you just can’t take anymore. We are living through a stressful time, to say the least. The economy is in an unprecedented downturn. Layoffs are rising. Banks are going bankrupt. Real estate values are plunging. Even certain foods have become unsafe. When are we going to catch a break?
When you feel overwhelmed I suggest that you remember:
  1. Life will always have stressful periods. You are a magnificent, creative individual with inner strength. You must not allow negative thoughts to dominate your consciousness as your health will be affected.
  2. The stress is only temporary. Stress doesn’t last forever. The trick then is to manage your reaction to stress.
One body with two systems
Within our body are two nervous systems, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic system controls the “fight or flight” reactions that allow us to deal with dangers. Sympathetic nerves cause our hearts beat faster, the pupils of the eyes dilate, heightened vigilance, and blood flow is directed away from the digestive tract to skeletal muscles to allow us to run from danger. These sympathetic actions can save our lives if we need to escape. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system is the “slow down and relax” system. Think of how relaxed and comfortable you are after a superb dinner – the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible. Parasympathetic nerves lower blood pressure and heart rate, facilitate digestion and allow us to feel pleasure. Our bodies work best when sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are in balance.
Chronic stress
Prolonged periods of stress cause excessive activation of the sympathetic nervous system and do not allow the body to return to the relaxed state. Because of the heightened alertness, sleep is compromised. When we don’t get enough sleep insulin and gherlin levels rise, resulting in weight gain. Chronic stress causes blood pressure elevations, which raise the risk for heart attack and stroke. Cortisol, the adrenal hormone released during stress, is toxic to neurons in the brain regions for memory, causing mental lapses and confusion. Even our immune system is compromised by stress, making us susceptible to colds and the flu.
Assess the problem
Stress is part of life. I suggest that you take a look at how you cope with stress. Do you have an extra cocktail or two? Do you snap at your loved ones or colleagues? Are you becoming depressed? Be honest with yourself. Stress can result in behaviors that move you away from who you are meant to be.
The solution
Stress can be managed! The goal is to change how you react to stress and thereby protect your body. Managing stress is valuable skill to learn because stress itself is inevitable.
  1. Exercise. As you know, I am a cheerleader for daily aerobic exercise and I use it to protect myself against excess stress. When you move your body, you free your mind from worry. Endorphin release activates the pleasure centers of the brain, releasing a sense of calm and pleasure.
  2. Breathing. Focusing on breathing is a form of mindful meditation. Because consciousness is directed to breathing, negative thoughts cannot intrude. Position your body in a relaxed position and inhale deeply through your nose, hold the breath for a count of 5, then exhale slowly and completely. While doing the exercise, imagine your lungs filling with pure oxygen during the inhalation and as you exhale, be aware of carbon dioxide leaving each tiny air sac. Slowly repeat the breaths for a few times. You can do the exercise anywhere and whenever you feel anxious. Physiologically, the slow, deep breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system and lower blood pressure. In fact, biofeedback works by the same principle.
  3. Meditation with visualization. I frequently teach my patients this practice. Position your body comfortably, with your eyes closed, and take a few cleansing breaths, allowing tension to leave your body. Imagine yourself in a peaceful place. Now be aware of the muscles of your forehead: Are they holding any tension? If so, let it. Progressively relax your entire body: hands, arms, legs, feet, and torso. Visualize your internal organs, your heart beating reliably throughout your life, your lungs which bring oxygen to your body, and your brain which holds your history and marvel at the magnificence of your life. There is no one like you in the universe. You are creative, talented, and alive. Resolve to care of your perfect body. Maintain the meditative state for as long as you desire, but even a few minutes will help. When you are ready, count to three and open your eyes.
These techniques have been around for centuries because they work. They cost nothing, require no equipment, and should be a part of your life. Let them help you.
Use these techniques to get you through these turbulent times. Remember – your health is an area you can control. Seize it and build the riches of good health.
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