Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2003 / 7 Shevat, 5763

Bodyfire: It'a a new year -- let's cut the stress!

By Eric Harr | How did your holidays go this year? Quarreling relatives, tearful children? Traffic jams and gifts you sent out too late?

It's not surprising, after all, that people are more stressed than ever. Recent medical studies prove it; and according to The National Institute of Mental Health, roughly one in three people suffers from moderate to severe stress, and on a daily basis. That can have serious and long-term effects on their health.

To most people, the very idea of stress has negative connotations. They see it as a painful or debilitating condition. Yet not all stress is negative. The late Hans Selye, M.D., a Viennese-born endocrinologist who achieved international renown through his decades of research on stress, was the first to explain that, for better or for worse, stress is a constant influence in our day-to-day lives. He also made an important distinction between positive stress, known as ``eustress'' (the type of stress you are likely to experience when you win the lottery or finish a 5K run), and negative stress, or ``distress'' (the stress brought on by overworking or lack of sleep).

Eustress is beneficial in that it can give us a competitive edge in performance-related activities, such as athletics or public speaking. Distress, however, can affect people in harmful ways. Prolonged distress has been shown to compromise the immune system, damage memory cells in the brain and increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and other illnesses, according to Bruce S. McEwen, M.D., author of ``The End of Stress as We Know It'' (Joseph Henry Press, 2002) and director of the neuroendocrinology laboratory at the Rockefeller University, a medical research center in New York City.

Experts agree that the key to successful stress management is to find and maintain a personal equilibrium between channeling eustress and reducing distress. In other words, being your best when faced with positive stress, such as a tough workout; and better controlling the negative stress the emerges during a traffic jam, for example.

To do this, it may be helpful to first examine the science of stress. Human beings are designed to respond instinctively in certain situations. For example, in times of emergency, the body shifts into a biological stress mode of ``flight or fight'' that galvanizes us into action. Our focus sharpens, our heart and lungs accelerate, the body releases adrenaline, all ti help us respond quickly and decisively. It's how you might feel at the market when you turn around to discover that your 2-year-old has somehow scaled to the top of the stacked-can display.

But who says we're biologically equipped to meet multiple stresses that often hit us simultaneously -- traffic jams, urgent appointments, job deadlines, unexpected house guests and wailing children?

``The fact is, we're now living in a world where our systems are not allowed a chance to rest, to go back to base line,'' says Dr. McEwen. ``People are being driven by excess calories, inadequate sleep, lack of exercise, by smoking, by isolation or frenzied competition.''

So what can you do? Dr. McEwen advises such things as sensible eating, more quality sleep, smarter exercise and moderate drinking. ``It's a matter of making choices in your life,'' he says.

The National Institutes of Health also offers these suggestions:

-- Eliminate or reduce intake of caffeine or other stimulants since they just make things worse.

-- Pursue more relaxing physical activities, such as yoga, swimming or Pilates.

-- Get away. Vacations, even short weekend trips, work wonders on stress.

Champion athletes also rely on breathing techniques to channel their stress before major athletic competitions, and studies show that deep, diaphragmatic breathing seems to have the most immediate effect on reducing stress.

Leonard Holmes, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who directs the Chronic Pain Program at the Hampton Veterans Administration Medical Center in Tidewater, Va., outlines a breathing technique that consists of taking three very deep, deliberate breaths. Try it right now: Breathe in through your nose and count silently and slowly to 3; push your stomach out rather than your chest. This allows you to breathe with your diaphragm and to get a deeper breath. Breathe out on a slow count of 6 -- through your mouth -- and as you do, visualize all negative stress melting off your body.

Repeat three times. Repeat more often while negotiating through quarrels, screaming children, traffic jams and unsent gifts.

Eric Harr is a professional triathlete, author and television host. His latest book is "The Portable Personal Trainer: 100 Tips to Energize Your Workouts and Bring out the Athlete in You." Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, TMS