Nagging headache? Can’t sleep? Not very productive at work? It could be stress. Left unchecked, chronic stress may play a part in up to 80 percent of diseases and illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — everything from insomnia to hypertension to premature aging to even death.
And boy, are we feeling it. According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey for 2013, 43 percent of women say their stress levels have increased in the last five years. In fact, the APA report showed that Millennials and Gen Xers experience the most stress and the least relief — they have higher stress levels than older generations and they are not managing it well. This is supported by a recent study in the Journal of Applied Psychology, which found that not only were women more stressed than men but 20-year-olds were more stressed than 30-somethings.
If that doesn’t scare you into de-stressing, how about these unsavory tidbits: Chronic stress leads to obesity, acne and infertility, and a recent study found that men found women with a high level of the stress hormone cortisol less attractive.
1. Find a quiet space where you will be undisturbed. Turn off all electronic devices.
2. Give yourself a window of open time; to start with, it can be as short as 15 or 20 minutes. You may want to set a timer so that you don’t have to keep checking on the time.
3. Relax your body, stretch, move your arms and legs and gently roll your head from side to side and front to back. Sigh. Move your face muscles. Loosen the tightness in your body and mind so that you are able to be fully present.
4. Sit comfortably with your back straight in a chair or on a cushion. Let your hands lay comfortably on your knees or rest your hands on your lap, right hand on top of left, with your thumbs touching each other — this is the Samadhi mudra, the hand gesture that promotes calmness. Close your eyes or keep them half open, focusing on an object like a lit candle. Breathe in deeply and exhale slowly and gently. Repeat without using force in your inhale and exhale. Observe your breath as you breathe in and out. When thoughts come, mentally push them aside without judging them. Return to your breathing. Continue on this cycle of breathing, clearing away thoughts, breathing.
5. At the end of the meditation time, slowly bring your consciousness back to your surroundings; make note of any insights you may have glimpsed in your quiet time.
A former corporate executive, Marilyn Tam, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, consultant and certified coach. Her radio show, The Happiness Choice, on FMG Network is broadcast globally to more than 30 million listeners. Find out more at marilyntam.com.
With rampant stress, “our bodies have lost the balance between our sympathetic (fight or flight response) and parasympathetic (repair and restore response) nervous systems ,” says Marc Zollicoffer, director of Aveda Spa Education. “We are in a constant state of flight or fight and not spending enough time resting and regenerating.” Based on studies that show that aroma has an effect on the brain’s hypothalamus, which controls the stress cycle in the body, clinical aromaologist Pierre Franchomme and Aveda created the Stress Fix aroma. Clinical testing showed that the aroma, a combination of certified organic French lavender, clary sage and lavindin (a hybrid of true and spike lavender) essences, relieves feelings of stress, significantly increasing positive moods and feelings of relaxation.
Perhaps nothing is as stress relieving as a massage. At OleHenriksen Face/Body Spa, the Hot Stone massage uses volcanic basalt river rocks for their heat retention properties, combining thermotherapy with massage techniques. The treatment revs up the parasympathetic system, but it also has a metaphysical “earth energy component” for energy balancing — the masseuse literally bathes the stones in full moonlight every other month. You lay on a sheet, your spinal column nestled between two rows of river rocks, while the masseuse kneads your arms, feet and legs, placing warm stones on your chakras (along your torso, under the knees, even between the toes). According to the masseuse, the heat from the stones relaxes muscle groups and increases circulation and lymphatic drainage, allowing for deeper massage work due to increased blood flow. It’s like being kneaded with rounded, solidified silk, and afterwards the kink in our shoulder was almost gone and we drove home stress-free. Details Olehenriksen.com.
Can’t get to a spa? Treat yourself to a mini-facial massage at home to knead out tension, especially in the jaw and forehead. A luxurious massage milk with micro-collagens to plump skin. Massage on and go straight to bed — no rinsing necessary. Koh Gen Do Royal Massage Milk.
According to the APA’s 2013 Stress in America survey, stress keeps 46 percent of women (and more than 52 percent of Millennials and 48 percent of Gen Xers) lying awake at night. And yet it’s sleep that we need to lower cortisol levels. Take steps to ensure you get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep. Cut back on caffeine, stop screen time (TV, iPad, smartphone) at least one hour before bedtime and go to sleep at the same time each night to set circadian rhythms. Spray your sheets with calming lavender and get a cooling orthotic pillow (like Proper Pillow, proper- pillow.com) specially made to properly align your neck and spine for a truly restorative sleep.
Yoga instructor Sunina Young shows us how these poses can help de-stress, even if you’ve never done a downward dog in your life.
Yoga helps you retrain your stress response by encouraging you to fully focus on your breath through poses. You can use this practical breathing technique in any life situation as well. As you go through each pose below, breathe and simply let it go. If a stressful thought sneaks into your mind, mentally say a calming affirmation like,“I now release all feelings of stress.”
Breathing Technique for Poses:
Inhale through your nose for seven counts, exhale through your nose for eight counts. Let whatever you are feeling pass naturally. Repeat this breathing pattern throughout your poses.
Calming Pose 1 (Moderate)
Hero pose (shown below, left) is great for improved digestion, better posture and knee, calf, ankle relief (calling all ladies in heels!). Start by standing on your knees so they are aligned with your hips. Press the tops of your feet down and into the ground. Open your calves out to the sides and sit your hips down to the ground, your behind between your heels. (If your butt doesn’t touch the ground, sit on a yoga block or a rolled up yoga mat.) Sit up tall, twist to the right, right hand placed behind you, left hand resting on top of the right thigh. Stay for seven to 10 breaths. Repeat on the other side. Affirmation: “All the tension in my muscles release freely.”
Calming Pose 2 (Dynamic)
Camel pose is a back-bending pose that creates space in your chest and lungs for better breathing. Be sure your body is warmed up before you get into this pose. Start with your knees hip width apart and hands at your lower back, spine lengthened and tall, crown of the head neutral, shoulders rolled back. With a deep breath in, lean back slowly with your chin tucked in. Thighs are spiraling inwards to maintain a strong foundation as you lean back further. Lift your chest as you lean further back. Only lean back where your body threshold permits. Reach your hands back to your heels and extend your head back slowly. Stay for seven to 10 breaths. Affirmation: “I am cool, calm and collected.”
Sunina Young is a yoga instructor and blogger in New York City. Check out her blog at sunina.com.
If all else fails, just laugh. “The very act of moving your facial muscles to form a smile is already prompting your body to release endorphins,” says Tam. “Endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain and to increase feelings of euphoria, so we feel fewer negative effects of stress.” At the very least, we’ll look more attractive to the opposite sex.
This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here.