DescriptionAn in-depth report on the causes, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of stress.
A healthy lifestyle is an essential companion to any stress-reduction program. General health and stress resistance can be enhanced by regular exercise, a diet rich in a variety of whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and by avoiding excessive alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco.
Of interest, a 2003 study suggested that fish oil, which has been associated with a lower risk for heart disease and stroke, may blunt some of the harmful effects of mental stress on the heart.
In one 2002 study, high doses of vitamin C reduced stress levels and blood pressure. The doses given were higher than the recommended upper limit of 2000 mg/day. High doses may cause headaches and diarrhea. Long-term use increases risk for kidney stones and has other adverse effects in specific individuals.
Exercise in combination with stress management techniques is extremely important for many reasons, including the following:
Usually, a varied exercise regime is more interesting, and thus easier to stick to. Start slowly. Strenuous exercise in people who are not used to it can be very dangerous and any exercise program should be discussed with a physician. In addition, half of all people who begin a vigorous training regime drop out within a year. The key is to find activities that are exciting, challenging, and satisfying. The following are some suggestions:
As in other areas of stress management, making a plan and executing it successfully develops feelings of mastery and control, which are very beneficial in and of themselves. Start small. Just 10 minutes of exercise three times a week can build a good base for novices. Gradually build up the length of these every-other-day sessions to 30 minutes or more. [See also Well-Connected Report #29, Exercise.]
Cognitive-behavioral techniques (CBTs) are the most effective ways to reduce stress. A CBT typical approach includes identifying sources of stress, restructuring priorities, changing one's response to stress, and finding methods for managing and reducing stress.
CBT may particularly helpful when the source of stress is chronic pain or other chronic diseases. In fact, in one study of HIV patients, it was more helpful even than support groups for improving well-being and quality of life.
Identifying Sources of Stress. One key component in most CBT approaches is a diary that keeps an informal inventory of daily events and activities. While this exercise might itself seem stress producing (and yet one more chore), it need not be done in painstaking detail. A few words accompanying a time and date are usually enough to serve as reminders of significant events or activities.
The first step is to note activities that put a strain on energy and time, trigger anger or anxiety, or precipitate a negative physical response (e.g., a sour stomach or headache).
Also note positive experiences, such as those that are mentally or physically refreshing or produce a sense of accomplishment.
After a week or two, try to identify two or three events or activities that have been significantly upsetting or overwhelming.
Questioning the Sources of Stress. Individuals should then ask themselves the following questions:
Restructuring Priorities: Adding Stress Reducing Activities. The next step is to attempt to shift the balance from stress-producing to stress-reducing activities. Eliminating stress is rarely practical or feasible, but there are many ways to reduce its impact.
Consider as many relief options as possible. Examples include the following:
Discuss Feelings. The concept of communication and letting your feelings out has been so excessively promoted and parodied that it has nearly lost its value as good psychologic advice. Nevertheless, feelings of anger or frustration that are not expressed in an acceptable way may lead to hostility, a sense of helplessness, and depression.
Expressing feelings does not mean venting frustration on waiters and subordinates, boring friends with emotional minutia, or wallowing in self-pity. In fact, because blood pressure may spike when certain chronically hostile individuals become angry, some therapists strongly advise that just talking, not simply venting anger, is the best approach, especially for these people.
The primary goal is to explain and assert one's needs to a trusted individual in as positive a way as possible. Direct communication may not even be necessary. Writing in a journal, writing a poem, or composing a letter that is never mailed may be sufficient.
Expressing one's feelings solves only half of the communication puzzle. Learning to listen, empathize, and respond to others with understanding is just as important for maintaining the strong relationships necessary for emotional fulfillment and reduced stress.
Keep Perspective and Look for the Positive. Reversing negative ideas and learning to focus on positive outcomes helps reduce tension and achieve goals. The following steps using an example of a person who is alarmed at the prospect of giving a speech may be useful:
Use Humor. Research has shown that humor is a very effective mechanism for coping with acute stress. Keeping a sense of humor during difficult situations is a common recommendation from stress management experts. Laughter not only releases the tension of pent-up feelings and helps keep perspective, but it appears to have actual physical effects that reduce stress hormone levels. It is not uncommon for people to recall laughing intensely even during tragic events, such as the death of a loved one, and to remember this laughter as helping them to endure the emotional pain.
Relaxation and Other Alternative Techniques
Relaxation Methods. Since stress is here to stay, everyone needs to develop methods for invoking the relaxation response, the natural unwinding of the stress response. Relaxation lowers blood pressure, respiration, and pulse rates, releases muscle tension, and eases emotional strains. This response is highly individualized, but there are certain approaches that seem to work.
Combinations are probably best. For example, in a study of children and adolescents with adjustment disorder and depression, a combination of yoga, a brief massage, and progressive muscle relaxation effectively reduced both feelings of anxiety and stress hormone levels.
No one should expect a total resolution of stress from these approaches, but if done regularly, these programs can be very effective.
Acupuncture. Some evidence suggests that acupuncture may also be helpful. It might even improve some physical factors associated with stress and health problems. For example, in a study of heart failure patients acupuncture improved stress-related heart muscle activity, which could be an important benefit in these patients. (Acupuncture had no effect on stress-related blood pressure or heart rate.)
Hypnosis. Hypnosis may also benefit some people with severe stress. In one study of patients with irritable bowel, stress reduction by hypnosis correlated with improvement in many IBD symptoms.
Herbal and Natural Remedies
Some people who experience chronic stress seek herbal or natural remedies. It should be strongly noted, however, that just as with standard drugs, so-called natural remedies can cause problems, sometimes serious ones.
Probiotics. Probiotics are helpful bacterial strains that by themselves may provide a barrier against harmful bacteria, possibly through various mechanisms, such as by excreting certain acids (e.g., lactate, acetate) that inhibit harmful bacteria or competing with them for nutrients. Stress reduces levels of these bacteria, and it has been suggested that probiotics may help maintain remission in patients with IBD. In one small 2002 study, at the end of six months people suffering from stress and exhaustion who took a probiotic supplement experienced significant reductions in stress symptoms and gastrointestinal complaints. The specific bacterial strains that might be beneficial, however, are not fully known. The most well-known probiotics are the lactobacilli strains, such as acidophilus, which is found in yogurt and other fermented milk products. Others, however, may prove to be more important, such as bifidobacteria and GG lactobacilli. Other probiotics include the lactobacilli rhamnosus, casel, plantarium, bulgaricus, and salivarius, and also Enterococcus faecium and Streptococcus thermophilus.
Aromatherapy. The smell of lavender has long been associated with a calming effect. In a Japanese study, 14 women who were put in a room with a lavender scent experienced reduced mental stress. A number of aromatherapies are now used for relaxation. It should be strongly noted that some of exotic plant extracts in these formulas have been associated with a wide range of skin allergies.
Valerian. Valerian is an herb that has sedative qualities and may reduce stress and associated physical effects. This herb is listed on the FDA's list of generally safe products. Of note, however, its effects could be dangerously increased if it is used with standard sedatives. Other interactions and long-term side effects are unknown. Side effects include vivid dreams. It should be noted that high doses of valerian can cause blurred vision, excitability, and changes in heart rhythm.