Here's the bad news about constant stress. Whenever we feel stressed out, that's a signal that our brain is pumping out stress hormones. If sustained over months and years, those hormones can ruin our health and make us a nervous wreck.
And here's the good news: You can teach your body to handle the stresses of a normal, full-but-hassled life much better. All it takes is setting aside a few minutes a day.
Scientists find that days filled with a string of stressful events will do it. But so will one chronic source of stress -- like an abrasive relative or co-worker. In either case, our body fails to turn down the volume on the stress response. If we keep going through stress spirals, we enter what neurobiologists call "frazzle," a technical term for the state of being overwhelmed. While frazzled we react in rigid ways, can't adapt to change, can't concentrate.
Our body suffers, too: An increase in abdominal fat and insulin resistance that makes us more prone to diabetes, heart disease, and artery blockages. The effectiveness of the immune system plummets.
But all this can be reversed. Even if we can't change our situation -- those hassled days or that obnoxious relative are facts of life -- we can take back control of our body's reaction to all those stresses. The key: daily practice of a relaxer -- a simple method that shifts our body into the relaxation response, the physiological opposite of that stress reaction.
If we do this regularly, just 10 or 20 minutes a day, we can retune how our body reacts the rest of the day when we face those hassles. Instead of a flood of stress hormones, we can have a stream or a trickle.
When I did research at Harvard on relaxation methods as an antidote to stress reactivity, I found that people who had practiced a relaxer for 15 or 20 minutes recovered more quickly from that rush of stress hormones.
Just as important, the more months or years someone had practiced the relaxation method, the quicker their recovery from stress. Regular practice paid off. More recent research suggests the vagal nerve, which controls how we react to stress, gets more "toned."
This means that if, for instance, you practice a relaxer in the morning, you'll fare better later in the day when that relative or co-worker annoys you yet again.
Two tips on practicing relaxation:
1: Shop around a bit at first to find one method that works for you -- that you enjoy doing. Not one size fits all -- some people might like a deep muscle relaxation while others take to meditation. You want to look forward to your daily session. That's crucial for tip number two.
2: Practice every day. Find a time in your daily routine that you can set aside just for this -- whether on the bus to work or during personal quiet time first thing in the morning.
The results may be subtle at first. You might find, for instance, you're no longer waking up at 3 a.m. obsessing about that obnoxious person, or that you aren't yelling at the kids when they dawdle getting ready in the morning. It's harder to notice problems that don't happen than ones that do -- but that's not such a bad thing.
This first appeared in Psychology Today.