You can’t avoid stress, but with holistic methods, you can live with it
By Tamara E. Holmes
Last year, Crystal Washington, a marketing strategist in Houston, knew something was wrong. “I was feeling both over- and underwhelmed,” the 28-year-old says. She would go from feeling anxious about all the tasks she had to complete as the new owner of a marketing firm to being burned out and losing interest in things. “I knew I was stressed,” she says.
While some people would accept such feelings as being a part of living and working in the 21st century, Washington sought a way to manage her anxiety. A friend told her about a healer who introduced her to meditation. She also makes a habit of getting monthly massages. “Now I feel two tons lighter, and both family and friends comment on my increased balance, patience and happiness,” she says.
According to a 2009 survey by the American Psychological Association, 42 percent of Americans said their level of stress had increased over the past year, and nearly a quarter of adults said their stress ranked an eight, nine or 10 on a 10-point scale. Among African Americans, 74 percent cited money and 60 percent blamed work for being a significant source of stress. While some stress is good since it tends to motivate us, “being too stressed ultimately reduces your energy and deteriorates your health,” says Nicole Cutts, a licensed psychologist and success coach in Washington, D.C. But many health practitioners say holistic methods, such as those employed by Washington, can make all the difference in the world.
Before you can find an effective solution for managing stress, you’ve got to recognize that you’re stressed out in the first place. “Being stressed out is a catchall phrase for when anxiety begins to feel intolerable,” says Karinn Glover, attending psychiatrist at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y. “A person may have trouble sleeping and concentrating or be easily frustrated.” Other symptoms of stress include lack of interest, motivation or energy, and sadness. Stress also can cause physical symptoms including fatigue, indigestion, muscle tension, headaches and hyperventilation.
Latashia DeVeaux, executive vice president of the Studio City, Calif.-based entertainment marketing firm The Mass Appeal, feels both emotional and physical symptoms of stress. “When I’m stressed, my body gets achy and tight in knots,” the 33-year-old says. “I’m not in the nicest mood, and I’m tense [and] uptight.”
Some people do harm to themselves as they try to manage stress and anxiety. For example, a common reaction to stress is to dull the senses with alcohol. “If a woman is having more than one to two drinks daily, or a man is having more than two to three drinks daily, or the person is reaching for illicit drugs to manage anxiety, there is definitely a problem,” Glover says, adding that smoking cigarettes is another harmful way people often try to manage their anxiety.
If stress goes unchecked, it can have dangerous consequences. “There is a body of evidence that suggests links between life stress, depression and heart attacks in men over 55 and women 65 and over,” says Glover. Anxiety also can lead to insomnia, which depletes energy and immune function and leaves us more susceptible to disease, she adds. Bottom line: When stress is allowed to fester, it not only causes physical and emotional discomfort, but it also can kill.
Mind Over Matter
Though chronic stress can have grave consequences, there are many ways to keep it from wreaking havoc on your body and life. Major stress or anxiety triggers the “fight or flight response” in the body, which is the body’s primitive urge to attack or flee from a perceived danger. When a life-threatening event occurs, that response is helpful since it spurs you to act in a method that will promote self-preservation. But when that response is triggered by work pressures, family troubles or economic woes, the response is wasted since you can’t run from such problems and there’s typically no antagonist to fight.
Advocates for holistic methods to fight stress recognize the mind’s connection to the body and seek to help people become aware of any thoughts that contribute to stress, as well as the manifestations of stress in their bodies. “When you recognize that your body starts to tighten up around a situation you perceive to be stressful, then you can have the opposite reaction to it and send a message to your brain that everything is OK,” says Cutts. Likewise, when we relax the body, we automatically send a message to the brain that things are fine, experts say.
If you want to manage stress, it’s important to first check in with your body multiple times per day, says Dawit Assefa, a licensed acupuncturist in Washington, D.C. “People sit and are tense or hold their bodies in uncomfortable postures while their minds are somewhere else,” says Assefa. Instead, notice whether your breath is rapid and shallow or whether your shoulders are tense. “Take a moment and sit in a comfortable position and do a body scan. You will start noticing where you have tension in your body,” he adds.
Glover also teaches her patients to use mindfulness to overcome stress and anxiety. “The first step is for them to notice it and be curious about the physical sensations; notice the rapid heartbeat and the shortness of breath and just say, ‘this is anxiety,’” she says. Once a person can acknowledge it, the next step is to learn how to experience stress without becoming frightened by it. “Anxiety can spiral out of control because once you notice it, it can freak you out,” says Glover. One way to stay calm through anxiety is to practice breathing. When you’re anxious, your breathing becomes shallow. By taking deep breaths, you can keep stress and anxiety from growing and begin to control them.
Meditation is another way to control anxiety. When you meditate, you still your mind and learn how to detach from your thoughts. “Everything that stresses us out goes through the filters of our thinking,” says Cutts. “If we learn in meditation to not hold onto our thoughts, we can transfer that skill to daily living. So when a thought comes that we’ve got to get this done right now, we can recognize that it’s just a thought and we can let it go.”
Assefa also encourages clients to develop a spiritual practice to help keep stress levels down. When it comes to managing stress, it helps to accept life the way it is and let go of the need to control everything, he says. “When you have a connection to something divine, you can let things roll off your back a little easier.”
From Mind to Body
While changing your mindset can help you start to react differently to daily pressures, thus lowering your stress response, attending to the body is another way to eliminate stress.
Exercise is perhaps one of the best stress relievers. Not only can it give you something to focus on other than your worries, but exercise releases chemicals called endorphins, which cause feelings of happiness. Exercise comes in many different varieties, but experts recommend finding something you enjoy so you keep it up. DeVeaux practices pole dancing as a form of aerobic exercise. Though she’s typically stressed before she begins a session, “I’m uninhibited, glowing and calm afterwards,” she says.
Other forms of bodywork can be explored with the help of holistic practitioners.
“People carry their stress in different muscle groups, particularly in the neck and shoulder area,” says Tonya Parker, a holistic wellness practitioner in Laurel, Md. Such people could benefit from massage, she says. “Massage strokes are designed to help relieve that muscle pressure. They break up that tension,” Parker adds.
In addition to soothing the muscles, massage has been found to help with circulation and blood flow and to decrease blood pressure, Parker points out. Since some people find that stress triggers a rise in blood pressure, massage can counteract that as well. “Massage calms the central nervous system, so you can see that it has a number of effects that impact the stress response,” Parker says.
Another holistic treatment for stress is acupuncture, a procedure in which needles are inserted into different points of the body. “When you insert a needle into a pressure point, it releases tension in that part of the body and the person automatically starts to relax,” Assefa says.
Relaxation is crucial to stress relief. Not only does it send a message to your brain that everything is okay, but when people feel relaxed, “their brains aren’t going 100 miles a minute anymore, and their ability to be present increases dramatically,” Assefa says. “People get a glimpse of what it feels like to be less anxious, and they want to stay in that place.”
Yoga, a form of exercise that combines physical postures, breathing exercises and meditation, also helps with the stress response because it slows the mind while working the body, Cutts points out.
Stress is a part of daily life, so regardless of what holistic stress-reduction method you choose ,it’s important to practice it regularly.
“Make a commitment to yourself to do something once a month just for your own health and well-being –something you enjoy and that makes you feel good,” says Assefa. “That’s only 12 out of 365 days. You can make that much of an investment in yourself.”