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Mental Health Problems and Mind-Body Wellness

Stress and Distress

What Stress Does to the Body - Becoming More Stress-Hardy - Recognizing Stress - Managing Symptoms of Stress - Relaxation Skills - Roll Breathing - Progressive Muscle Relaxation - Relaxation Response

Stress is the way you react physi-cally, mentally, and emotionally to various conditions, changes, and demands in your life.

Stress is part and parcel of common life events, both large and small. It comes with all of life's daily hassles as well as with crises and life-changing events. Unless you can regularly release the tension that comes with stress, it can greatly increase your risk for physical and mental illness.

What Stress Does to the Body

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At the first sign of alarm, chemicals released by the pituitary and adrenal glands and the nerve endings automatically trigger these physical reactions to stress:

Your body is tense, alert, and ready for action. After the natural "alarm" reaction to a real or perceived threat, your body stays on alert until you feel that the danger has passed. Then your brain signals an "all clear" to your body, and your body stops producing the chemicals that caused the physical reaction and gradually returns to normal.

Problems with stress occur when your brain fails to give the "all clear" signal. If the alarm state lasts too long, you begin to suffer from the consequences of constant stress. You may find it difficult to see the relationship between stress and physical health problems, because the long-term effects of stress are subtle and slow. However, experts in every area of medicine are discovering links between stress, disease, and poor health.

Becoming More Stress-Hardy

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Some people seem to be more resistant to stress, and studies indicate that these people are less likely to get sick. Researchers have identified 4 personality factors that stand out in stress-hardy people:

It's never too late to develop a more stress-hardy personality. The first step is to believe that you can do it (remember, think positive!). Approach one challenging area of your life at a time. Be committed to making things better for yourself and those around you. Identify the things you can control and those you cannot. Accept that changes will occur, and know that you will be able to deal with them. Call upon your support network to get the help you need, whether it's someone to watch your children for a few hours so you can run errands or someone who will just listen to your plans. As you begin to gain control over one challenging area of your life, you will find more time and energy for tackling additional areas.

Recognizing Stress

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The signs of stress are classic. You may get a headache, stiff neck, or a nagging backache. You may start to breathe rapidly or get sweaty palms or an upset stomach. You may become irritable and intolerant of even minor disturbances. You may lose your temper more often and yell at your family for no good reason. Your pulse rate may increase and you may feel jumpy or exhausted all the time. You may find it hard to concentrate.

When these symptoms appear, recognize them as signs of stress and find a way to deal with them. Just knowing why you're feeling the way you do may be the first step in coping with the problem. It is your attitude toward stress, not the stress itself, that affects your health the most.

Managing Symptoms of Stress

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Some people try to relieve the symptoms of stress by smoking, drinking, overeating, using drugs, or just "shutting down." Some people become violent or abusive in response to stress. These methods of coping have harmful side effects. By learning other ways to deal with symptoms of stress, you can avoid problems that may affect yourself or others and improve your overall quality of life.

Relaxation Skills

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Whatever you do to manage stress, you can benefit from the regular use of relaxation skills.

The following 3 methods of relaxa-tion and meditation are among the simplest and most effective. They should be done once or twice a day for about 20 minutes each time. Pick a time and place where you won't be disturbed or distracted. Once you've trained your body and mind to relax (2 to 3 weeks), you'll be able to produce the same relaxed state whenever you want.

Roll Breathing

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The way you breathe affects your whole body. Full, deep breathing is a good way to reduce tension and feel relaxed. The object of roll breathing is to develop full use of your lungs and get in touch with the rhythm of your breathing. It can be practised in any position, but it is best to learn it while lying on your back, with your knees bent.

  • Place your left hand on your abdomen and your right hand on your chest. Notice how your hands move as you breathe in and out.

  • Practise filling your lower lungs by breathing so that your left hand goes up when you inhale and your right hand remains still. Always inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.

  • When you have filled and emptied your lower lungs 8 to 10 times, add the second step to your breathing: inhale first into your lower lungs as before; then continue inhaling into your upper chest. As you do so, your right hand will rise and your left hand will fall a little as your abdomen falls.

  • As you exhale slowly through your mouth, make a quiet, whooshing sound as first your left hand, and then your right hand falls. As you exhale, feel the tension leaving your body as you become more and more relaxed.

  • Practise breathing in and out in this manner for 3 to 5 minutes. Notice that the movement of your abdomen and chest is like rolling waves rising and falling in a rhythmic motion.

  • Practise roll breathing daily for several weeks until you can do it almost anywhere. Then you'll have an instant relaxation tool any time you need one.

    CAUTION: Some people get dizzy the first few times they try roll breathing. If you begin to hyper-ventilate or become lightheaded, slow your breathing. Get up slowly.

    Progressive Muscle Relaxation

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    The body responds to stressful thoughts or situations with muscle tension, which can cause pain or discomfort. Deep muscle relaxation reduces muscle tension and general mental anxiety too. Progressive muscle relaxation is effective in combating stress-related health problems and often helps people get to sleep.

    Muscle Groups and Procedure

    You can use a prerecorded audiotape to help you go through all the muscle groups, or you can do it by just tensing and relaxing each muscle group. Choose a place where you can lie down on your back and stretch out comfortably, such as a carpeted floor. Tense each muscle group (hard, but not to the point of cramping) for 4 to 10 seconds; then give yourself 10 to 20 seconds to release it and relax. At various points, check the muscle groups you've already done and relax each one a little more each time.

    Hands: Clench them.

    Wrists and forearms: Extend them and bend the hands back at the wrist.

    Biceps and upper arms: Clench your hands into fists, bend your arms at the elbows, and flex your biceps.

    Shoulders: Shrug them. (Check your arms and shoulders for tension.)

    Forehead: Wrinkle it into a deep frown.

    Around the eyes and bridge of the nose: Close your eyes as tightly as possible. (Remove contact lenses before beginning the exercise.)

    Cheeks and jaws: Grin from ear to ear.

    Around the mouth: Press your lips together tightly. (Check your facial area for tension.)

    Back of the neck: Press the back of your head against the floor.

    Front of the neck: Touch your chin to your chest. (Check your neck and head for tension.)

    Chest: Take a deep breath and hold it; then exhale.

    Back: Arch your back up and away from the floor.

    Stomach: Suck it into a tight knot. (Check your chest and stomach area for tension.)

    Hips and buttocks: Squeeze your buttocks together tightly.

    Thighs: Clench them.

    Lower legs: Point your toes toward your face, as if trying to bring your toes up to touch your head. Then point your toes away and curl them downward at the same time. (Check the area from your waist down for tension.)

    When you are finished, return to alertness by counting backwards from 5 to 1.

    Relaxation Response

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    The relaxation response is the exact opposite of the stress response. It slows your heart rate and breathing, lowers your blood pressure, and helps relieve muscle tension.

    Technique (adapted from Herbert Benson, MD)

  • Lie down in a place where you can stretch out comfortably. Close your eyes.

  • Begin progressive muscle relaxation. See Progressive Muscle Relaxation.

  • Become aware of your breathing. Each time you exhale, say the word "one" (or any other word or phrase) silently or aloud. Concentrate on breathing from your abdomen, not from your chest.

    Instead of focusing on a repeated word, you can fix your gaze on a stationary object. Any mental stimulus will help you clear your mind.

    Continue this for 10 to 20 minutes. As distracting thoughts enter your mind, don't dwell on them. Allow them to drift away.

  • Sit quietly for several minutes, until you are ready to open your eyes.

  • Notice the difference in your breathing and your pulse rate.

  • Don't worry about becoming deeply relaxed. The key to this exercise is to remain passive, to let distracting thoughts slip away like waves on the beach.

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