As a naturopathic doctor, I take my time with my patients and get to know each person’s story, as well as his or her health history.  Very frequently it turns out that at least a component of his or her chief concern involves stress.

Nor am I alone in this – an estimated 75-90% of all visits to Primary Care Physicians are for stress-related complaints or disorders.  Stress has been linked to all of the leading causes of death, including heart disease and cancer.  Clearly from a holistic physician’s perspective, proper stress management techniques are absolutely essential to your health.

The following is a list of recommendations that I make to my patients.  Some may be more applicable to you than others.

  • Get enough sleep.  Adequate sleep contributes to overall well being, including but not limited to improved energy and greater emotional stability.
  • Eat a healthy diet.  High sugar, high saturated fat, and nutrient deficiencies can all cause inflammation and a physiologic stress response in your body.
  • Exercise regularly.  Exercise elevates your mood by releasing endorphins (the natural “high”) and improves your metabolism.  It also promotes the elimination of toxins from your body by improving your circulation.  Toxic accumulation can also cause a physiologic stress response.
  • Relaxation techniques.  Choose one or more of the following suggestions to practice regularly.  Notice that all of these techniques involve a shift in focus — that is the key.
    • Prayer.  The idea that we are in control of our own lives is an illusion anyway.  Prayer reminds us to place our focus not on the problem, but on the One who can lead us to the solution.  Pray about your concerns, but then be still and listen.  You might be surprised what you’ll hear.
    • Meditation is the art of clearing your mind and focusing intently on a single image, phrase, or idea.  Worry involves the constant focus on a negative thought or idea, while meditation is the intentional focus on a positive idea.  For example, I meditate on Bible verses that speak specifically to my circumstance.  Instead of worry and fear, I begin to see the positive solution I hope for as I focus on these words.  My hope then turns into faith as I choose to believe the verses on which I am meditating.
    • Guided imagery.  When you worry, you are using your imagination to envision a negative outcome.  Why not use the powerful tool of your mind in order to achieve the opposite effect?  There are many terrific guided imagery CDs that can help you with this technique if you are not yet adept at creating powerful images on your own.
    • Yoga.  This form of slow, methodical stretching holds each pose long enough to release stored tension in the muscles that are forced to relax.  It also emphasizes proper breathing (see below).
    • Deep breathing.  This is a quick way to bring your body into a parasympathetic (or a “not stressed”) state.  When muscles are tense, they seize up, inhibiting blood flow and oxygenation.  Deep breathing provides more oxygen to your tissues, helping to release that tension.   Breathe in and out to a count of five seconds each, expanding your stomach rather than your chest.  This drops your diaphragm, fills your lungs to capacity, and slows your heart rate.
    • Massage.  This technique forces blood flow back into tense muscles, which both delivers oxygen and whisks away toxins that have stagnated in the tissues.
  • Maintain a positive attitude.  Thoughts easily become habits — negative meditation (or worry) produces a negative attitude, and positive meditation does the opposite.  Just like any other habit, it’s difficult to break the tendency to think negatively at first, but it becomes easier with practice.  It is also important to be selective about the ideas that you allow to influence your mind.  As far as you are able, surround yourself with positive people and uplifting media (books, music, movies, and the like), and shut off those voices that are negative or harmful.  It still may not be easy at first to change habits of negative thinking, but this will certainly help to set you up for success.
  • Practice effective communication.  Many stressful events in our lives come about as a result of poor communication, leading to tension in relationships.  It is important to diffuse these situations at the outset as much as possible in order to avoid larger problems later on.
  • Manage your time.  This involves planning for those tasks that we consider to be most important, and also allowing time for relaxation.  Planning your schedule in advance will help you know when to ask for assistance, rearrange your priorities, or say no when you see that you won’t have enough time to complete a particular task.  Both over scheduling and poor time management can lead to unnecessary stress.
  • Develop leisure activities.  Consider joining a social or volunteer group with similar interests to yours.  Schedule time to get away for the weekend, to go on vacation, or to spend time with people you love.

Stress is not what happens to us; it’s the way our bodies react to it.  But if we supply our bodies and our minds with positive, healthful influences, we will be much better equipped to deal with the challenges of life.

This fantastic article by Positive Psychology also serves as a resource for those wishing to dig deeper into this topic!