08/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Today's Stress is Different: Important Tips on How to De-Stress in Changing Times

While many of us are over-stressed these days, the things we are doing to relieve stress don't seem to be working as well as they used to. That's because today's stress is different. It's obvious to us, after nearly twenty years researching the physiology of stress and wellness, and watching stress levels grow each year, that the majority of us are resigned to stress as an unwanted but inescapable way of life. So why is today's stress different than say just a few years ago?

Until recently, stress was considered a problem only after a major life crisis. The stress of today's times is not just the single incident type of stress that naturally follows trauma, illness, job change, or other major life event. What's different is a chronic stress that is eating into the fabric of our peace and joy. In addition to ongoing stressors, the recession has generated significant anguish for many people. This combination has created a cumulative effect pushing people to the brink of unraveling.

In a nationwide survey from the American Psychological Association 32% of Americans report experiencing extreme levels of stress. Nearly half of Americans believe that their stress has increased over the past five years. One in five reported that they experience their highest level of stress 15 or more days per month - and this was before the economic crash.

The Stress Effect

With all the debate on health care reform, very little attention has been given to the cost of stress, financially or to our health. We gloss over stress, when we think there isn't much we can do about it. Instead we focus on managing and paying for all the ailments and chronic diseases that stress has caused or aggravated. It's no wonder that 70-90% of visits to primary care physicians are due to stress-related complaints. Much of this stress is related to finances, relationships or the workplace.

Just two years ago the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that "Workplace stress is as bad for your heart as smoking and high cholesterol" but we don't see TV ads talking about it. Furthermore, data from a study involving 47,500 employees representing 22 companies and governments, who were followed for three years, showed depression and stress as the most costly contributors to adjusted annual health care expenditures.

It's astounding to us that with all these statistics many executives and managers still believe that ongoing stress is essential for job productivity, while studies show that workers under stress produce less. The federal Centers for Disease Control reports that stress is the single highest cause of worker absenteeism, double that of all other illnesses and injuries. It's also well established that stress interferes with memory, concentration, judgments and decision making.

We need to wake up to the fact that chronic stress is a serious health and productivity crisis affecting millions of us as well as the companies we work for. People confuse stress with challenge. Approaching a challenging situation with a positive attitude and energy is not necessarily stressful. We all know that one person's distress can be another person's exciting challenge. But let's not fool ourselves. When most of us talk about our stress overload around the water cooler, we are referring to a stealthy momentum of emotional distress that's increasing personal energy drain as it progressively establishes itself as our new norm. So what do we do? We can't change the economy, our relatives, or (for most of us) our job.

Stress Relief from the Inside-Out

There are many helpful interventions for stress, but most provide only temporary relief. A massage and aromatherapy can feel wonderful tonight, yet tomorrow we're back in the stress bath. In today's changing times, we need to learn how to take charge and relieve stress from the inside-out. Fortunately there are simple and proven ways to do this. Here are a few suggestions that can help.

Four Tips to Relieve Stress from the Inside-Out

#1: Connect with Others

Many people connect with others to relieve stress, but often connect only from the mind without an open heart. This is not as effective in releasing stress as when your genuine heart feelings are engaged. When people get together and mentally reinforce the downside of situations by amping up judgment and blame, it causes the heart to close off while intensifying the various stresses that you're trying to get relief from. It's human nature for the mind to judge, blame or react with bitterness at times. However, it's intelligent not to stay there, as this invites a flood of stress hormones that block discernment, hope and creative solutions. We all know that this eventually diminishes our health baseline.

If we open our heart as we work through our challenges with others, we can create a turnaround and increase our ability to take charge and maintain our balance through stressful situations. One of the most important ways to open the heart is to communicate your feelings. When an individual or group of people are in their compassionate hearts, and not just their minds, then the collective support helps to lift their spirits and relieves stress buildup. As the heart re-opens, different biochemicals are released that open the mind to new possibilities and perspectives. Research has shown that care and compassion also release beneficial hormones that help to balance and renew your system.

#2. Decrease drama

Another effective way to help stop personal energy drain from stress and reduce the anxiety is to practice not feeding "drama" in our thoughts and conversations. When we constantly spin thoughts of blame, anger and "doom and gloom" projections about the future, it increases drama, which always makes things worse. Adding drama to a situation blinds intuitive discernment, which is needed to find the most effective ways to navigate through challenges.

Start by reducing drama when sharing with others. When we genuinely share feelings from the heart with others, this reduces the tendency to keep amplifying and repeating the downside of situations--and increases the tendency to strengthen and encourage sober support and solutions.

Manage your reactions to the news. Continuously amping-up anger, anxiety or fear releases excessive levels of stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenalin, throughout the body. The long-play version of this can cause a cascade of physical health symptoms, along with potential mental and emotional imbalances. As you practice reducing drama, the energy you save helps to restore balance, clarity and positive initiative.

#3. Heart-Focused Breathing

Research from the Institute of HeartMath has shown that heart-focused practices can help to quickly reduce stress, anxiety or emotional overload. They help you shift stress-producing attitudes more easily and reset your stress tolerance baseline. Moreover you can do them anytime and anywhere.

Try this. Imagine your breath is passing in and out through the area of your heart or the center of your chest. Practice breathing in and out slow and easy. See this practice as a time out to refuel your system by breathing in an attitude of calm and balance (like breathing in an emotional tonic to take the rough edges off). The key to making this exercise effective is to generate the true feeling of calm and balance. Try to allow yourself to feel a sense of calm in and around the area of your heart, not just thinking calm from the mind. Allow yourself two or three minutes with this practice.

#4. Practice Appreciation and Gratitude

Another important tip for reducing stress is to spend some time each day sending genuine feelings of appreciation to someone or something--be it children, family members, a pet, or anything you appreciate. It's important that the appreciation be heartfelt (not just from the mind), since appreciative feelings activate the body's biochemical systems that help diminish stress and bring harmony and stability to mental and emotional processes. Breathe the true feeling or attitude of appreciation through the area of your heart. Practice this before sleep and first thing in the morning as you get out of bed and while you're getting ready for work. This helps to set up your day and increases your flow, resilience and balance through whatever comes your way.

(For more proven tips download the free booklet De-Stress Kitor the Changing Times)

The rapid changes occurring in the world can challenge any of us at times. We have to consciously play an active part to manage stress in this new playing field of constant change. Emotional self-maintenance and opening our hearts to compassion for others and for ourselves is an important part of this process. Much stress will diminish in the future as more people learn to create together for the good of the whole.

We welcome your insights and comments.

We invite you to join our Facebook and Twitter pages and YouTube channel where the latest stress relief resources are often announced and made available. We also offer a Stress & Well-Being Survey™, the most comprehensive and accurate assessment tool that's available free over the Internet. The survey takes five to ten minutes to complete, and will provide you with a comprehensive picture of how much stress you are experiencing, your energy level and what areas are most stressful in your life. Results are followed by tips for improving your scores.

Doc Childre is an internationally renowned stress expert, creator of the HeartMath® System, considered by many hospitals, organizations and health care professionals to be a best practice in stress management, and Chairman and co-CEO of Quantum Intech, Inc the parent company of HeartMath LLC. He is also founder of the non-profit research and education organization, the Institute of HeartMath and author of a dozen books on stress, wellness and heart-based living including The HeartMath Solution, From Chaos to Coherence, The HeartMath Approach to Reducing Hypertension, and the Transforming Series of books with co-author Dr. Deborah Rozman. Doc is the creator of the emWave® PC Stress Relief System and the emWave Personal Stress Reliever® technology, which won the Last Gadget Standing People's Choice Award at the 2009 International Consumer Electronics Show.

Deborah Rozman Ph.D. is a psychologist, business executive and co-author with Doc Childre of Transforming Stress, Transforming Anger, Transforming Anxiety, Transforming Depression and Stopping Emotional Eating: The emWave Stress and Weight Management Program. She is President and co-CEO of Quantum Intech, Inc. serves on the scientific advisory board of the Institute of HeartMath and is a key spokesperson for HeartMath on stress management and the role of heart intelligence and heart-based living in the planetary shift taking place.