In last week’s column, we reviewed the good and bad effects of stress. You can be unlit or burned out. For the unlit, there are nearly infinite resources of motivational speakers, conferences, goal setting, dream building, spiritual teachers, and just plain old skills training and education. If you don’t have any stress and your life seems stuck in neutral, get off the couch, shut off the gaming media, and take just one step. Jack Palance as Curly famously said in the movie “City Slickers,” “You know what the secret to life is? One thing. Just one thing. Once you figure it out, you stick to that … everything else don’t mean s….”
In my world and practice, however, most people are concerned about the other end of the spectrum of stress, the burnout side. The pace of life, multitude of demands, increasingly noisy news, impending international catastrophes, and just day-to-day hassles build up. Stress varies and changes with age. Bill Tinsley, a columnist for The Daily News, reminded us that Jesus taught that little children are the natural inheritors of the kingdom of God (“The child within — becoming Kingdom citizens,” The Daily News, Aug. 4). It seems children are likely the least stressed among us. They can find delight in the smallest things, live in the moment, laugh often, are quick to form relationships, to forgive and see the world as play. Somewhere, we lost that joy and to balance our lives need to reawaken it. Adolescents struggle with identity and peer acceptance. Adults deal with family, career, money, and relational struggles. And older adults deal with medical issues, their older kids, social isolation, and finances.
Many techniques are available for managing such stresses and offloading body and mind of their negative cumulative health effect. A great resource is “The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook,” by Martha Davis, a self-help book now in its sixth edition.
Here are some stress tools for you:
• Take a break from stress by praying for others. This takes your mind off your own worries by directing positive energy to another.
• Utilize the loving-kindness meditation to yourself, those close to you, or to others in the world. It goes like this: “May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.”
• Practice mindfulness by attending closely to the present moment, doing or noticing one thing at a time like mindful eating, and releasing the toxic pressure to multi-task.
• Notice your breathing, relaxing it into a soft belly, diaphragmatic deep breaths releasing any mental chatter for just three breaths. Repeat as needed. You’ll find this easy and instantly quieting.
• Use the relaxation response by focusing on a simple word or phrase to center the mind while doing deep, relaxing breaths for 10 to 20 minutes.
• Do repetitive and regular exercise like walking, swimming, running, and cycling.
• Try slow, meditative, gentle exercise like yoga or tai chi.
• Use 4-7-8 breathing: breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, and exhale with a whooshing sound to a count of 8. Repeat four times.
Though we may get stressed at any stage of life, these simple methods, proven over the ages and verified by the latest research, can help us recover from the harmful physical, mental and social effects of chronic stress.
Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.