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Healthy Living on a Budget

De-Stress Your Life

Deep breathing, meditation and getting back to nature are among the best ways to relax and improve your health.

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How stressed-out are we? Consider this: In some cities, "rage rooms," sometimes known as anger rooms, allow customers who are fed up with work, politics or the stress of everyday life to smash old furniture, TVs, dishes and other breakable items. At the Anger Room in Dallas, prices range from $25 for five minutes of destruction to $75 for the 25-minute "total demolition" package. There are similar places to vent your spleen in Houston and Toronto, and Anger Room is offering franchises to entrepreneurs who want to open facilities in other cities.

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Sadly, 25 minutes with a sledge­hammer probably won’t cure chronic stress, a toxic debility that has been associated with a litany of ailments, from headaches to heart disease. It weakens your immune system, making you more vulnerable to colds and flu. It makes you restless and irritable, which affects your relationships at home and at work. And it’s probably getting worse. More than half of Americans reported that the 2016 presidential campaign was a significant source of stress, according to the American Psychological Association. The stress was bipartisan, with Republicans and Democrats reporting the same amount of anxiety.

Stress is a natural response to a life-threatening situation. When you perceive a threat, your brain sets off an alarm—the classic fight-or-flight response. That causes a number of internal events to occur. Adrenaline increases your heart rate and elevates your blood pressure. The adrenal glands release cortisol, the primary stress hormone, which increases glucose in the bloodstream. It alters immune systems and suppresses digestion until the threat has passed.

Your body’s stress-response system can help you meet an important deadline or leap out of the path of a rogue beer truck. But when those hyped-up hormones fail to recede after the crisis has ended, it can trigger a cascade of health problems.

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Call it a failure of evolution: Our brains haven’t adapted to a world in which we’re not under constant threat from hungry predators. “There is no other species that has changed its environment so quickly,” says Dr. Amit Sood, chair of the Mayo Clinic’s Mind-Body Initiative and author of The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living. “We are working with a medieval kind of brain, although our challenges are very different.”

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Fortunately, you can take steps to reduce stress that don’t require protective gear.

Take a Deep Breath

We need to breathe to live, but most of us do it wrong, and that contributes to stress, says Belisa Vranich, a clinical psychologist and author of Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve Your Mental and Physical Health.

Vranich, who conducts breathing workshops for first responders, chief executives and other stressed-out high achievers, says most people are “vertical breathers”: They breathe from the bottom of their lungs through their chests and shoulders. When you breathe vertically, she says, “you’re using the smallest part of your lungs, you’re breathing faster, it makes you more stressed out.”

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In her classes, Vranich teaches students to expand their abdomens when they inhale, a practice she calls breathing horizontally. When you breathe this way, your diaphragm flattens and spreads, and your bottom ribs expand. By moving breathing to the lower part of your body, you’ll get more oxygen in your system and take pressure off your overworked shoulders and neck, Vranich says.

Although this exercise may feel strange—especially if you’ve spent much of your life sucking in your stomach in an effort to look thinner—it’s not entirely foreign. Breathing horizontally, or belly breathing, is often taught in yoga classes. Most children breathe through their bellies, but between the ages of 5 and 10 they start to breathe like their parents, Vranich says. Your dog and cat breathe through their bellies, too, and they’re probably a lot less stressed than you are.

Breathing exercises can also help alleviate anxiety, and you can do them anywhere. Navy Seals, who know a thing or two about stress, practice something called 4x4x4 breathing. Here’s how it works: Inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, and then exhale smoothly through your nose (or pursed lips) for four counts. Do this as often as necessary to relax your mind and body. (You can find lots of examples of 4x4x4 breathing exercises on YouTube.) This is also a good way to practice horizontal breathing.

Family Health Guide, a book published by Harvard Medical School, recommends this breathing exercise: Sit or lie down in a comfortable place. Take a normal breath. Then breathe in slowly through your nose, allowing your chest and belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Breathe out slowly through your mouth (or your nose if that feels more natural). With your eyes closed, combine deep breathing with other relaxation techniques, such as visualizing something pleasant or repeating a word or phrase that helps you relax.

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Mindfulness meditation also focuses on breathing techniques. Melissa Eisler, author of The Type A’s Guide to Mindfulness, recommends a slightly longer variation of 4x4x4: Inhale for three counts, hold for three, exhale through the nose for three, then hold at the bottom of the breath for three. Repeat for a count of four, then five and finally six.

Practice Mindfulness

In 2010, Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth developed a smartphone app that periodically asked a group of 2,250 volunteers what they were doing, whether they were thinking about what they were doing, and how they felt at that moment. The survey concluded that we spend nearly 47% of our waking hours thinking about something other than the task at hand, and when our mind wanders, it’s usually not to a happy place. Unlike other species, the psychologists concluded, humans spend a great deal of time thinking about things that happened in the past, could happen in the future, or might never happen at all.

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Mindfulness dispenses with the trappings of other types of meditation; there’s no mantra, as in transcendental meditation, or chakra, as in Rama meditation. The goal of mindfulness is to rein in your wandering mind by focusing on the here and now. Mindfulness meditation, a central practice of Buddhism, is one of the most effective tools to learn how to do this. And the benefits may be long-term: MRI scans conducted on people who meditated for eight weeks found a reduction in the size of the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls the fight-or-flight response. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with higher-order brain functions, such as decision-making, grew.

Unfortunately, many people are convinced they can’t meditate because they believe it requires them to empty their minds of all thoughts. “It’s a misconception that your mind will go blank and you’ll be in a state of deep peace,” says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Meditation can provide moments of peace, she says, but it’s perfectly natural for your mind to wander; that’s what our brains are programmed to do. The key is to be aware of what’s happening and to bring your thoughts back to the present (as opposed to what you’re going to cook for dinner or whether your car needs new shocks).

If you’re new to meditation, start small. Winston recommends meditating for five to 10 minutes a day. For beginners, it’s helpful to have a guide, and there are plenty of resources available, from online classes to smartphone apps. With time, you will find yourself incorporating the practice into your daily routine, Winston says. When your mind starts contemplating worst-case scenarios, meditation helps bring you back to the present—a sure-fire way to combat stress.

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Mindfulness is something you can do throughout the day—while you’re stuck in traffic, for example, or waiting for your coffee to brew or standing in an airport security line. You can also practice mindfulness while exercising, says Eisler. Many athletic endeavors already put you in a heightened state of awareness (think of the “runner’s high” experienced by long-distance runners), which makes it easier to focus on the present.

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You can also practice mindfulness while performing routine activities, such as walking, cooking or even driving. In addition to reducing stress, mindfulness makes you more satisfied and productive, Winston says. In one study, researchers found that people who were focused on a task reported being happier, even if they were doing something they didn’t enjoy.

Companies, public schools and sports teams have introduced mindfulness classes in an effort to boost productivity. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, an eight-week program developed at the University of Massachu­setts, is offered at more than 200 medical centers, hospitals and clinics around the world. The course offers guided lessons in mindfulness and meditation. To find an MBSR-certified class near you, go to www.umassmed.edu/cfm. You can find lots of tips on practicing mindfulness at Eisler’s blog, https://mindfulminutes.com.

Unfortunately, modern technology can be a barrier to mindfulness. Winston says she’s frustrated when she takes her young daughter to the park and sees other parents looking at their phones instead of their children. The Mayo Clinic’s Sood maintains, though, that this is nothing new. Every inno­vation humans have come up with to make their lives easier has also contributed to anxiety, he says.

Find Some Green

Naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” Although exercise will help alleviate stress, for best results, take your workout outdoors, preferably to a park with lots of trees. Numerous studies have shown that spending time in a natural setting lowers your blood pressure and heart rate, relieves muscle tension, and decreases stress hormones.

A study conducted by the University of Michigan and Edge Hill University in England found that people who embarked on a nature walk once a week experienced more positive emotions and less stress in just 13 weeks. In a study conducted by Stanford University scientists, one group of participants walked for 90 minutes through an area filled with oak trees and shrubs and another group walked the same distance along a busy street. At the end of the walk, brain scans of the first group showed less activity in the part of the brain associated with rumination—the tendency to focus on negative thoughts. Scans of the city walkers showed no change in activity—they were ruminating as much as ever.

You don’t need to travel to Yellowstone National Park to benefit from the stress-busting powers of nature. A walk in a city park or a nearby wooded area will go a long way toward quieting your mind. Studies have found that even having a potted plant in your office can lower stress at work.

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