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Manage Your Stress Before Your Stress Manages You

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By Lorenzo Cohen, Kira Taniguchi, and Alejandro Chaoul

Feeling stressed? There is a common misconception that stress is derived from a particular negative event that occurred. However, your spilled cup of coffee (the stressor) is not what caused your stress; rather it was the response to the stressor, known as the fight-or-flight response. While we cannot always control the stressors we encounter in life, we can learn how to control our reactions to the stressors.

Controlling our stress is critical. Research shows that chronic stress affects almost every biological system in our bodies. According to studies conducted on humans and animals, stress can alter the way genes get expressed and can affect the tumor microenvironment, creating a hospitable terrain for tumor growth.

Under chronic stress, it becomes more difficult to switch between the stress response, which is associated with sympathetic arousal, and relaxation, associated with parasympathetic arousal. Over time, the body will struggle to recover after a stressful event, even if the stressor is no longer present. Unmanaged chronic stress can literally speed the aging process, and it increases your risk for heart disease, and can cause sleeping difficulties, digestive problems, and even depression. Moreover, it can also cause you to forego healthy eating and exercise habits that help prevent cancer and other disease.

A key ingredient to managing chronic stress is to engage in behaviors that decrease sympathetic and increase parasympathetic arousal -- in other words, learning how to relax in stressful situations. Mind-body practices are one way to achieve better balance. Research shows that mind-body practices have a positive effect on all systems in our body, improving quality of life, reversing the harmful effects of stress, and creating fundamental changes in the way the brain functions. A recent study of cognitive behavioral stress management found this technique led to decreases in inflammatory gene expression.

Mind-body practices to help manage stress include meditation, different forms of yoga and practices like tai chi and qigong, what one could call movement-based meditations. These practices affect neurotransmitters, which are essential in maintaining a healthy balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic arousal, therefore, helping to manage our stress response.

Mind-body practices can help decrease chronic stress by bringing balance to our bodies, and ultimately, our lives. It is clear from multiple studies examining mind-body interventions that it is important for people to consider participating in some kind of program to manage their stress and improve their quality of life. There are many different mind-body programs that can be useful. People often ask which mind-body program is the best for reducing stress and improving quality of life. The answer is the one you will do every day and make it a part of your life.

Dr. Alejandro Chaoul, assistant professor at the Integrative Medicine Program in the Department of General Oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, lists some simple, very brief mind-body techniques that can be helpful during those stressful moments. The next time you become stressed, remember how important it is to manage stress and how influential our behaviors are on our brain function and our overall health and well-being, down to every cell in our body.

  • Pause and take a break. Just breathe with soft focus on your breath for a few minutes.
  • Take a moment (sitting if possible, or standing) to stretch your arms upward. As you lengthen your back, breathe deeply through your nose into your belly and back out through your nose. Lower your arms, place them on your lap and take a few deep, long, slow and calm breaths.
  • As you breathe normally, imagine your breath as light that nurtures you. When you breathe in, breathe in nurturing qualities -- feelings of joy, love, calm, connection to others. Each time you exhale, exhale tensions, pain, fear, anything that you do not need. Breathe in and out a few times using this technique.
  • When the traffic light turns red, it is a great opportunity to connect to yourself; put down your smartphone, turn off/down the radio, and pause to breathe in peace and release your thoughts and anxiety.
  • Whenever you wash your hands, wash your mind. As you focus on washing your hands, breathe and feel you are also clearing your mind.

Take any of the above as a "meditation pill" that you can always have with you, as techniques to help you find calm and focus in the moment.

Enjoy!

To learn more, attend the Friends of Integrative Medicine Evening Lecture Series at The MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas, on May 20, 2013 where Dr. Michael Antoni will speak on "Stress and Cancer"

For more by Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., click here.

For more on stress, click here.