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Address the Stress in Your Life

You'll be healthier in the long run, experts say

SUNDAY, Sept. 30, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The stock market has been sliding south for months. Corporate downsizing has reared its ugly head again. Credit card debt is surging.

No wonder the American Psychological Association was moved to say that stress is at an all-time high -- and that was before the terrorist attacks earlier this month.

Even before the national crisis, workers, homemakers, students, even children were struggling with stress loads that would have been unimaginable to earlier generations.

The APA says 75 percent to 90 percent of all doctor visits are for stress-related conditions. Stress can cause high blood pressure, headaches, an irritable bladder and bowel, sleeping and eating disorders, and problems with memory and concentration. And stress has been linked to the six leading causes of death -- heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide, according to the APA.

Take heart, though: Some stress isn't necessarily a bad thing. Experiencing the birth of a child, completing a tough task at work, helping a loved one grieve the death of a spouse, for instance, can help make life more rewarding.

But too much stress can be dangerous to your psychological and physical health.

"Stress can enhance our performance to a point. When we lose the ability to adapt to stress, that's when we have problems," says Dr. David Baron, chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

To cope with stress, there are measures -- physical and psychological -- you can take to help yourself.

On the physical side, Baron recommends three simple steps: Eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and get a good night's sleep. Also, keep an eye on how much coffee you drink -- researchers have used caffeine in studies to bring on panic attacks. And limit your consumption of alcohol.

"When we're stressed, the things that are most important and good for us, we give up first," Baron says. "We take better care of our cars and furniture than we do our own bodies."

On the psychological side, you need to identify the source of the stress in your life -- if it isn't already obvious.

Psychotherapist Jerry Kiffer, director of the psychological test center at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, says it's vital to keep life's trials in perspective.

Kiffer also recommends deep breathing techniques, like those taught in childbirth classes, as a great way to relax and relieve stress.

To get started, sit comfortably in a chair with your hands in your lap. Release any tension in your shoulders. Then, close your eyes and slowly blow out the air through your mouth. Then breathe in slowly through your nose. Keep repeating the process, and within a few minutes your heart and pulse rate will start to slow down.

Kiffer also endorses a technique called "visualization," which draws on pleasant memories to take "micro-vacations" and unwind. Find a quiet place to close the door, dim the lights, and sit down -- or even lay down -- for a few minutes. Turn on a CD with relaxing music or perhaps sounds of nature. Then, close your eyes and think of a favorite vacation. Or of sitting in front of a fireplace. Or a gently flowing river. Breathe slowly and deeply and let your muscles relax.

If life is so hectic that you can't take the time to create those pleasant experiences, Kiffer has one more suggestion that everyone has time for: "Look out the window and watch the clouds. If there's no clouds, pay attention to the color of the sky. Pay attention to nature. It's a big stress reducer," he says.

What to Do: For more information on how stress can affect us, visit this American Psychological Association Web page. And this APA site will help you determine if you need professional help to manage your stress.

SOURCES: Interviews with David Baron, M.D., chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Temple University School of Medicine, Philadelphia; Jerry Kiffer, psychotherapist, director of the psychological test center at the Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio
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