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Is a Stress-free Life Possible?

By Elaine Pomfrey

Many of us dream of retiring to the beaches of Hawaii and living out our days in stress-free bliss. But have you ever talked to people who have actually retired? Many of them report that stress continues to plague them either in the form of poor health, concerns about finance, boredom or annoying neighbors at the assisted living home. Perhaps the key to a stress-free existence is not to remove the cause of the stress, but rather to improve one’s response to stress.

Human Function CurveMost researches agree that there are two kinds of stress: good stress – eustress - and bad stress – distress - commonly known as stress. Pleasing activities that overload our nervous systems are a type of eustress, such as having a baby or riding a roller coaster (if you enjoy the thrill). Another type of eustress leads to better performance, but only up to a point, as the illustration displays. For example, many students delight in the research phase of writing a paper, but panic when the deadline looms.  What is the perfect level of stress that will keep you at maximum productivity?  That depends.

Two people may experience the same pressure, but react differently. Stress is not outside of you, but rather how you react to it. The second most stressful job in the world according to the Jobs Related Almanac is a firefighter, yet the firefighters’ network sites are filled with descriptions of how much they love their jobs. Some people enjoy flying; others white-knuckle the entire flight. You may like public speaking; your neighbor may hate it.

How to handle stress? Stress management techniques abound, but what about stress reduction? Tips on how to deal with stress psychologically are good, but it is faster and more direct to reduce stress in your body so you feel better. If your body is less stressed, you react more calmly. For example, when you have had a good night’s sleep, you don’t mind how many times someone cuts in front of you on the way to work. But if you haven’t slept well, then watch out!

Reduce your stress response naturally with these five techniques and see if your life doesn’t become more stress-free:

1) Meditation

Many doctors recommend meditation as a way to reduce stress. After meditation, people feel more refreshed and alert. Many report that problems no longer loom so large. The Transcendental Meditation technique, the most effective meditation known for reducing anxiety, provides very deep rest in less than 20 minutes. This deep rest dissolves deep-rooted stress and fatigue. Numerous research studies demonstrate the stress-reducing benefits of the TM technique, for example, breast cancer patients experienced better mental and emotional health and meditating college students felt less stressed.

2) Exercise

Everyone knows that they need to exercise more, but do they know why? You may have heard of endorphins being secreted during exercise giving you that “runner’s high.” Scientists have discovered that the process is more complicated than that. Regular exercise helps to decrease the production of stress hormones, such as cortisol, and neurotransmitters that are secreted during the stress response. So exercise helps to reduce the damage that long term stress can have on the body.

Research has also discovered that exercise decreases depression, lowers anxiety and helps people sleep. When exercising, all of the body’s systems – cardiovascular, muscular, nervous system, etc. – have to communicate with each other more closely than usual. Thus, a workout makes the body more efficient and enhances the body’s ability to respond to stress.

3) Reduce caffeinee

Caffeine, in the form of coffee, tea or cola, is the fuel of the American workplace. But it has its downsides. It can make you more anxious or disrupt your sleep. Duke University researchers found that caffeine consumption increased production of stress hormones and elevated blood pressure in the workplace, both when the subjects were resting and when they were stressed. To avoid a caffeine withdrawal headache, cut back slowly rather than going cold turkey.

But what about chocolate? Interesting research conducted by Nestles demonstrated that eating small amounts of dark chocolate (40 grams) each day may help the metabolic response in stressed-out people. Chocoholics rejoice!

4) Get enough rest

Rest is the body’s natural means to dissolve stress and fatigue. When we are rested, we feel calmer and better able to deal with problems that arise. Research has linked sleep deprivation with poor performance and dullness during the day. Missing just 1.5 hours of sleep in one night can decrease alertness by about 33%.

To help you sleep better, avoid intense activity right before bed such as working or watching a violent movie. Eat lighter in the evening and avoid caffeine after 6 pm. And get enough exercise during the day so you are ready for bed.  

5) Diet

A healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables keeps stress at bay. Foods containing vitamins such as B complex, C and E and minerals like zinc and selenium help to reduce stress according to research. Avoid canned or processed foods that often contain harmful chemicals. Reduce refined carbohydrates and sugar because they cause blood sugar to increase and then fall quickly leading to a feeling of being drained. Complex carbohydrates, like whole wheat and brown rice, keep blood sugar steady and increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has a relaxing effect.

How you eat is as important as what you eat. Almost half of the adults in the 2009 APA study on stress reported that they overeat or eat junk food due to stress. Pay attention to your food to avoid indigestion - don’t watch TV, read or drive.

More information about physically reducing stress:

The Transcendental Meditation technique is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical diagnosis or treatment.
Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider regarding any medical condition. Individual results may vary.

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