Health And Family

The stress is on holiday stress

AN APPLE A DAY - Tyrone M. Reyes M.D. - The Philippine Star

We all experience stress in our daily lives.  From traffic jams to money woes, a worrisome illness to day-to-day pressures in the office, the world is bursting with situations that can cause stress.  The Christmas holidays are a particularly stressful time of the year.  Aside from your everyday stresses, you may have to add to your schedule holiday shopping, Christmas parties, gift-giving, family gatherings, and other holiday stressors.

Just as serious as the stressors themselves are the adverse effects stress can have on your emotional and physical health. Many well-respected studies link stress to heart disease and stroke — two of the common causes of death among Filipinos.  Stress is also implicated in a host of other ailments such as depression, anxiety, chronic lower respiratory diseases, asthma flare-ups, rheumatoid arthritis, and gastrointestinal problems.

While you can’t avoid stress altogether, you can learn to manage stressful situations in healthier ways, enabling you to sidestep certain health problems and prevent some ailments from worsening.  But a recent study showed that the way Filipinos cope with stress could be unhealthy, too.  For example, many resort to binge drinking after office hours as their way of handling stress.  As noted likewise by Sheldon Cohen, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, “People under stress tend to drink alcohol and smoke more, skip exercise, and eat and sleep poorly,” which further aggravates their health.

Stress symptoms

Our body’s response to stress can include increased breathing and heart rates, tense muscles, and the release of energy-producing hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.  In a recent poll of more than 1,200 adults by the American Psychological Association (APA), respondents blamed stress for causing their irritability, fatigue, lack of energy, headaches, and upset stomachs.  Following are some other ways that stress can affect your health:

• Colds.  Chronic stress alters the body’s ability to fight inflammation, leaving people more susceptible to colds, according to an April 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  In one experiment, people who reported a major stressful life event during the previous year were at a higher risk of catching a cold after they were exposed to cold viruses.  Another study found that participants reporting more chronic stress were more likely to produce excessive pro-inflammatory cytokines — protein molecules that trigger inflammation — after being exposed to the cold virus.

Alzheimer’s disease.  Life’s stressful events might also be linked to the onset of dementia, according to a study presented at the 2012 meeting of the European Neurological Society.  The study included 107 men and women diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and 76 healthy adults.  Almost three-quarters of the people with Alzheimer’s disease had experienced major stress — such as losing a spouse — about two years before the onset of the disease, compared with 24 percent of those in the control group.

Stroke.  Psychological distress, including anxiety and depression, was associated with increasing a person’s risk of dying of stroke, according to a study published in the June 12 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Researchers assessed the stress levels of 68,652 adults at the start of the study, then followed them up for about eight years.  The findings suggest that psychological stress appears to increase the chance of a person dying of stroke.

How to lessen your stress

There is plenty of research that supports a variety of stress-reduction methods, including do-it-yourself techniques and professional help.  The American Psychological Association (APA) survey found that women are more likely than men to use various strategies to relieve stress, including reading, praying, spending time with family or friends, shopping, getting a massage, or seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist.  You might try one or more of those methods this holiday, as soon as you feel yourself becoming more stressed.

Following are some other effective tools:

Meditation.  There are several forms of this practice, including mindful meditation, where you focus your attention on breathing to become more aware of the present. In a May 2012 study of 100 adults, who utilized this technique, as published in the British  Medical Journal, the participants said their stress level scores dropped by about 10 points (out of 40 points) by the end of the six-week program.

Biofeedback. This method uses electronic devices to measure heart rate and other indicators, and visual feedback to determine how well you’re doing at reducing stress.  Practitioners of biofeedback therapy use a variety of relaxation methods to help their patients manage stress, including controlled beathing, muscle relaxation, and guided imagery.

Exercise. Endorphins, or feel-good chemicals released during exercise, can counteract adrenaline’s negative effects when you’re feeling stressed.  “It’s like a spa for the heart,” says Tracy Stevens, MD, a cardiologist at the St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo. in the US, since endorphins relax muscles and dilate blood vessels.  And there’s evidence that people who get regular aerobic exercise have lower levels of stress hormones and experience smaller increases in heart rate and blood pressure under stressful conditions.  Mind-body exercises like Pilates, tai chi, and yoga also cause physiological changes, including a lower blood pressure and heart rate.

E-mail hiatus. People who didn’t have access to their work e-mail for five days were less stressed than colleagues who kept e-mailing, according to a small study presented recently by researchers from the University of California at Irvine and the US Army.  The researchers found that workers who checked their e-mail had higher heart rates, indicating stress.

Massage. There’s evidence that massage can help relieve anxiety and stress. An annual survey conducted by the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) found that 30 percent of people who had massages in 2011 said they chose them to relieve stress and relax. Cynthia Riberio, AMTA president, suggests massaging your temples or forehead, or rolling a tennis ball on your forearm for quick relief from tightening muscles.


If you have only a short while to spare, dip into the stress-busting suggestions (described below) from experts from the Harvard Medical School:

When you’ve got one minute.  Place your hand lightly just beneath your navel so you can feel the gentle rise and fall of your belly as you breathe.  Breathe in slowly. Pause for a count of three. Continue to breathe deeply for one minute, pausing for a count of three after each inhalation and exhalation.

When you’ve got two minutes.  Count down slowly from 10 to zero.  With each number, take one complete breath, inhaling and exhaling.  For example, breathe in deeply saying “10” to yourself.  Breathe out slowly.  On your next breath, say “nine”, and so on.  If you feel lightheaded, count down more slowly to space your breaths further apart. When you reach zero, you should feel more relaxed.  If not, go through the exercise again.

When you’ve got three minutes.  While sitting down, take a break from whatever you’re doing and check your body for tension.  Relax your facial muscles and allow your jaw to fall open slightly.  Let your arms fall to your sides. Allow your hands to loosen your legs or ankles.  Feel your thighs sink into your chair, letting your legs fall comfortably apart. Feel your shins and calves become heavier and your feet grow roots into the floor. Now, breathe in slowly and breathe out slowly.

When you’ve got five minutes.  Try self-massage.  A combination of strokes works well to relieve muscle tension.  Try gentle chops with the edge of your hands or tapping with fingers or cupped palms.  Put fingertip pressure on muscle knots.  Knead across muscles, and try long, light, gliding strokes.  You can apply these strokes to any part of the body that falls easily within your reach.  For a short session like this, try focusing on your neck and head.

When you’ve got 10 minutes. Try imagery. Start by sitting comfortably in a quiet room. Breathe deeply for a few minutes. Now, picture yourself in a place that conjures up good memories.  What do you smell — the heavy scent of roses on a hot day, crisp fall air, or the wholesome smell of baking bread?  What do you hear?  Drink in the colors and shapes that surround you.  Focus on sensory pleasures: the swoosh of a gentle wind; soft, cool grass tickling your feet; the salty smell and rhythmic beat of the ocean. Passively observe intrusive thoughts, and then gently disengage from them to return to the world you’ve created.

And to all the faithful readers of this column:  May you have a stress-free and hassle-free Christmas holiday!
















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