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Stress busters that work

Some of us are naturally resistant to stress, but anyone can use these proven strategies to calm body and mind.

As Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel puts it, "Living a stress-free life is not a reasonable goal. The goal is to deal with it actively and effectively."

One approach is to look at people who are naturally resistant to stress. Some people weather devastating experiences much better than other. By studying them, researchers have discovered that they share distinctive habits. They:

  • Focus on immediate issues rather than global ones.
  • Share an optimistic explanatory style.
  • Assume their troubles are temporary (I'm tired today) rather than permanent (I'm washed up) and specific (I have a bad habit) rather than universal (I'm a bad person).
  • Credit themselves when things go right, while externalizing their failures (That was a tough audience, not I gave a wretched speech).

At the University of Massachusetts' Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, specialists teach people to manage stress through meditation and other relaxation exercises. Participants in the center's stress program concentrate on breathing to calm the mind. Then they lie down and scan their bodies, relaxing one muscle at a time. This process involves moving from one muscle or body part at a time from head to toe, breathing in and out and forcing air into each muscle and body part slowly and steadily as you progress from head to toe. This entire exercise should take 15 to 30 minutes to complete.

Massage is another proven antidote to stress. No one knows precisely how it reduces the stress response, but the effects can be dramatic.

If massage and meditation are too tame for your tastes, exercise may be your medicine. Exercise increases the body's production of morphine-like endorphins, while improving the brain's oxygen supply and releasing tension from the muscles.

There are many other options, from yoga to biofeedback to music therapy, and none of them excludes the others. So do what works for you. And whether you go to confession, join a support group, or start a diary, find a way to talk about your feelings.

How can such different exercises have such similar benefits? The key, experts agree, is that they combat feelings of helplessness.

©Adapted from Academic Skills Center, Dartmouth College 2001

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