The Healthy Geezer's Tips for Dealing with Stress

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Question: I don't handle stress very well. I was wondering if you had any recommendations to deal with my problem.

Answer: The American Psychological Association reports that one-third of Americans are living with extreme stress. Money and work are the leading causes of stress for three quarters of Americans. Nearly half of all Americans report that stress has a negative impact on both their personal and professional lives.

We respond to stress with a "fight-or-flight" reaction. It's our natural response to a perceived threat. In the old days, that threat was something simple like a beast chasing us up a tree. Now we have all kinds of "threats" that include shrunken nest eggs, caring for a sick loved one, getting stuck in traffic, dealing with a blankety-blank computer.

Here's what happens in your body during a stressful event: An alarm goes off in your brain. Your adrenal glands atop your kidneys are told to release adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones pump up your pulse, blood pressure and sugar levels in your blood. They get you ready to shinny up that tree.

The stress response is complex. It also suppresses nonessential functions, controls mood, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. When the threat is removed, the body returns to a normal state.

Your health can be damaged by unrelenting stress. Overexposure to stress hormones can lead to depression, heart disease, impaired memory, insomnia and obesity.

We can't escape all stress, so we have to learn how to deal with it. Here are what I consider the best tips for handling stress:

Exercise: Exercise can decrease the production of stress hormones and elevate the level of endorphins, the brain's neurotransmitters that make you feel good. Exercise can increase self-confidence and lower the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety. I'm listing exercise first because I believe it is the most important technique for alleviating stress.

Meditation: Meditation can give you peace of mind. Focusing your attention is an important part of meditation because it liberates your mind from distractions that cause stress and worry. It's easy and you can do it whenever or wherever you want. Prayer is the most widely practiced example of meditation. Other methods of meditation include:

  • Mantra meditation: You silently repeat a word, thought or phrase to prevent distracting thoughts. Transcendental meditation is a type of mantra meditation.
  • Guided imagery: You summon images that are relaxing to you such as a tropical island with palm trees and clear blue water.
  • Yoga: In this practice, which originated in India, you perform a series of postures and controlled breathing exercises.
  • Tai chi: This form of Chinese martial arts involves slow movement and deep breathing.
  • Qi gong: This practice, part of Chinese medicine, combines meditation, relaxation, physical movement and breathing exercises.

Positive thinking: Thoughts run through our minds constantly. Some are negative and self-defeating. Others are positive and empowering. You can control what you want to dwell upon. If a negative thought pops into your consciousness, you can block it out and replace it with a positive thought. It takes vigilance and an act of will. This technique will reduce stress, alleviate depression and anxiety, and lead to better mental and physical health.

Here's a wonderful variation on the Golden Rule: Don't say anything to yourself that you wouldn't say to anyone else.

Sleep: Sleeping well restores the mind and body. Lack of sleep is ranked with obesity and smoking as a leading danger to your health. Try to set aside enough time to sleep. Take naps.

Music: Listening to restful music will reduce stress. MP3 players have become an inexpensive way to have music in your life whenever you want. And you can play up-tempo tunes on a player to motivate you during exercise.

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Fred Cicetti is a contributing writer for Live Science who specializes in health. He has been writing professionally since 1963. Before he began freelancing, he was a reporter, rewriteman and columnist for three daily newspapers in New Jersey: The Newark News, Newark Star-Ledger and Morristown Record. He has written two published novels:" Saltwater Taffy—A Summer at the Jersey Shore," and "Local Angles—Big News in Small Towns."