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Relax for major health benefits: simple stress-reducing techniques can help lower blood pressure, improve brain function, ease anxiety, and more.

The stresses of modern life can make you sick. Constant worrying about finances, loved ones, or other concerns can lead to sleeplessness, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, memory loss, and more. Even chronic mild stress takes a toll on health, according to a recent study, which is why practicing techniques that can help you relax in the face of daily pressures may be an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.


Researchers recruited a group of 17,205 employed adults, assessed their levels of mental and physical stress, and tracked their health. After five years, 446 of the participants were unemployed and receiving long-term benefits for physical health problems and 203 were unemployed and receiving benefits for mental health problems. According to a report published online March 21, 2011 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, there was a strong association between participants' levels of stress at the beginning of the study and having received a disability pension by the end of the study. Even mild stress resulted in significantly greater likelihood of disability.

"This study adds to an extensive body of research that has correlated stressful life events with the development of mental and physical health issues," says Albert Yeung, MD, ScD, Director of Primary Care Studies in the Depression Clinical and Research Program at MGH. "The researchers showed that stress need not be overwhelming to do damage: Any level of chronic stress can cause problems.

"But there are ways to minimize the negative effects of stress. One effective strategy is to learn and regularly practice one of a number of simple techniques that have been shown to bring about the relaxation response--RR--a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson in 1975 to describe the body's natural antidote to stress. During the RR, breathing slows, blood pressure drops, brain waves change, and other positive mental and physical changes occur. Relaxation techniques are a cost-free and readily available way to reverse the destructive processes associated with stress and restore a sense of wellbeing."


To have the maximum effect, Dr. Yeung says, relaxation techniques should be practiced daily--beginning with 10-minute sessions and working up to 30 minutes a day or more.

"It's important to remember that this is a skill, and practice makes perfect," he says. "Gradually, you should feel calmer, more relaxed and in touch with your body, and find it easier to concentrate and tap into positive emotions."

There are many good relaxation techniques, including yoga and tai chi. If you decide to use one of the four methods described below, first find a quiet place where you can sit or lie comfortably without being interrupted. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and slowly, and try to eliminate mental "chatter" so you can focus on what you're doing. Don't expect to master any technique right away, but with practice, you should increase your ability to focus and in time achieve the RR.

* Visualization: Choose a mental image that transports you to a place where you feel happy and at peace, such as a sunny beach or a quiet lake. Visualize the scents, the sounds, the feel of your chosen scene in detail, blocking out all other thoughts and sensations. Fully involving yourself in this mental "vacation" for 10 minutes or more has physiological and mental effects that lead to feelings of relaxation and enjoyment, and eventually evokes the RR.

* Body scan: Focus systematically on sensing and relaxing various parts of the body. Begin with the right foot. Try to feel your toes. Are they tense? Do they feel numb, sore, cold, warm? Concentrate on sensations in this part of your body for a minute or two, then inhale deeply and imagine your breath flowing from your chest down your right leg and into your toes. Now exhale while you release all tension in your toes. Repeat this procedure as you move to the arch of your right foot, to the ankle, calf, thigh, the toes of the left foot, and so forth, gradually moving up the body part by part to your jaw, eyes and forehead. As you perform the exercise, imagine your body slowly becoming heavier and more relaxed.

* Progressive relaxation: Beginning with your feet, tighten the muscles as intensely as you can, holding this tension for a slow count of 30, then letting go and relaxing your feet completely. Feel them sink heavily into the surface on which they rest. Move gradually up the body from muscle group to muscle group, alternately tensing and relaxing, ending with the muscles of your jaw, face and eyes. Your entire body should feel completely relaxed. This method will help you become more aware of tensions in your body and develop the ability to consciously relax taut muscle groups.

* Mindfulness meditation: Take deep, relaxing breaths. Become aware of your body, your breathing, and sensations such as pain, warmth or numbness. When thoughts enter your mind, try to stay detached from them, taking note of any feelings--such as anger, sadness, or anxiety--that might arise, and then focusing on your breathing once more. With practice, you should increase your ability to remain relaxed as thoughts and feelings come and go. This capability will help reduce stress as you become more deeply in touch with your mind and body, and more resistant to irrational or disturbing thoughts and emotions.
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Publication:Mind, Mood & Memory
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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