July 6, 2009
How to Handle Stress During a Tough Economy
By Dr. Jeremy Hertza, neuropsychologist
Walton Rehabilitation Health System
Augusta, GA—It’s like a heavy dread descending on you the moment you wake up. Your head begins throbbing, your stomach is in knots.
It’s stress. And violence in the news (both abroad and at home), fears of losing your job, and worries about whether you’ll have enough to support your family now, much less for retirement—all this can trigger feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.
The problem isn’t just mental. Because the mind and body are so closely connected, mental stress can deliver physical symptoms. Prolonged stress can cause you to think more slowly, have memory problems, plus cause fatigue, headaches, even stomach pain. Which can make you feel even more stressed out, creating a vicious cycle.
The Department of Behavioral Medicine at Walton Rehabilitation Health System offers the following tips on simple things people can do to help manage their stress, without medication.
Imagine the Stress Away
You know the cliché—“Go to your happy place.” But blocking negative thoughts through guided imagery—imagining yourself in an enjoyable place—really does help you relax, especially at night when racing thoughts from a busy day might keep you up and worrying.
The secret is to focus on using all your senses in creating your image. Imagine what you hear, feel, smell, taste—for example, if your happy place is being at the beach, imagine the soft thunder of the waves crashing on the shore, the feel of the wind caressing your face, the “alive” smell of the saltwater and the sweet-sour taste of the ice-cold lemonade you’re sipping—and the image becomes really vivid.
At first, achieving relaxation through guided imagery may take a few minutes. But once you’ve practiced and trained yourself to bring up this image anytime you feel stress, the effect becomes almost immediate.
Relax and Breathe
When a person feels stress, their muscles tighten and breathing becomes shallower. Massages are great to help people relieve this muscle tension and relax. But you can practice a mini-muscle relaxation technique without a trip to the spa. Starting either at the top of the head or the bottom of the feet, work your way up or down, tightening, then relaxing your muscles. Instead of stress controlling your body, this technique allows you to regain that control. Combine it with deep breathing using your diaphragm, pushing your belly out when you inhale.
Get Rid of Stressful Habits
If you’re feeling anxious, certain habits can increase your anxiety. Caffeine from coffee or soft drinks only serves to heighten your system. Nicotine from smoking is also a stimulant, and the carbon monoxide from cigarette smoke reduces your oxygen intake, hampering breathing. Alcohol is not only a stimulant but also prevents you from going into REM sleep, which is that restful stage your body needs in order to feel refreshed.
Exercise, however, is one habit that will help improve stress symptoms. Remember that mind-body connection? Exercise helps relieve physical tension in your neck, back and stomach (which is where stress shows up most frequently).
Understand Your Stressors
Stress often causes people to view the world in a negative way—where everything seems bad or doomed to fail—instead of the way things really are. Remember, the past predicts the future, so think about times in the past where you thought things were going to turn out really bad but ended up being OK. If the outcome was fine back then, why wouldn’t it be fine now?
Finally, know yourself. Being aware of stress—knowing what causes it, when it happens, what stress does to you, and what you should do when it happens—keeps you in control, keeps you relaxed—and keeps you happier, in the long term.
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