You hear it all the time, from everyone you know: “I’m so stressed.” “I feel overwhelmed.” “I can’t get caught up.” Stress is the defining characteristic of the 21st century, and sometimes it seems impossible to manage, which creates more stress — I call it the negative feedback loop of DOOM. When we are stressed we usually feel helpless and out of control of our life.
Do not despair! There are simple things we can do to break the feedback loop of doom and reduce the stress — even dissipate it completely.
I have a career that I love, but it often has a stressful component. Making sure I have touchstones of my faith around me serves a twofold purpose: I have allies to call upon in managing negative situations, and the objects serve as constant reminders that there is more to my life than what takes place at my job. In most cases, you can have objects that hold personal meaning on your desk, or in your cube. I have never felt comfortable having anything that resembled an altar in my workspace, but I do have a small statue of Ganesh (clearer of obstacles) and a carved stone bowl full of polished stones. He likes sweets and the color red, so I’ll often put a candy bar there, on a small swatch of red fabric. When things get stressful, I give myself a break (even five minutes will do), take a deep breath, center myself, and call upon Ganesh for assistance.
Essential oils are another subtle but effective way to de-stress in the office environment. The oils are intensely concentrated, so a very little bit goes a long way (which helps when spending $30 on a tiny bottle). Essential oils directly affect the olfactory sense — bypassing the neo-cortex and going directly to the ‘reptilian brain,’ the oldest part of our brain and the part that most affects how we perceive and experience danger and stress. Smell can transport us to a different place, breaking a cycle of stress that threatens to overwhelm us.
Here are my three favorite stress-busting essential oils:
- Lavender. Widely available and cheap, even for organically-grown high-quality oils, this oil is super-effective for most people, is nearly-instantaneous, and has the lowest allergic reaction rate I have heard of over the years.
- Lemon. Floral scents can be overwhelming or off-putting, in which case I recommend lemon (or any citrus scent). The scent is refreshing, and often associated with relaxing summer days. Lemon also produces saliva, counteracting the dry mouth often associated with stress.
- Eucalyptus. This is a sharp, clear, menthol scent (peppermint is an alternative if you can’t find eucalyptus) that refreshes the mind.
The easiest way to use these scents is to put a few drops on a cotton handkerchief before you leave home and carry it with you in a small Ziploc bag. When you get stressed, open the bag and take three deep breaths with the cloth close to your nose. Take your time with the breaths, allowing them to clear your mind and relax your body.
When I was going through a particularly stressful time several years ago, I wore a locket necklace with a small pad inside and every morning I refreshed the scent on the pad. The warmth of my skin sent the scent directly into my nose all day long.
Looking at calming images is a great way to sneak de-stressing time into your office routine. Some of my favorites include a live feed of a bunch of puppies and an osprey’s nest (both through the excellent website http://www.explore.org). Swimming fish relaxes many people (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rsf35tugWkg). How about a sunrise (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3sdHNzIDjw) complete with the sounds of crickets? Or maybe a sunset by the ocean (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLGHUe1OxNU)? Each is less than 10 minutes, so you’ll still have time on your state-mandated 15-minute break to get a drink or make a personal phone call.
If you are ill or worried about your health, the stress is doubled by the worry, and it is especially important to de-stress often, and to pay attention to steering the mind away from worrying. The body needs all the help it can get to restore itself, and the best thing we can do from our end is to reduce health stress by staying calm and to keep the mind as peaceful as possible.
Essential oils are useful here as well, and I like Parsley, Sage, and Cardamom the best, although they can be a bit difficult to find. Parsley is a great revitalizer with a lot of energy. The scent is unusual. Sage has a clearing effect that seems to be particularly effective when you are on a slide into despair, feeling overwhelmed and out of control. Cardamom is refreshing and particularly effective at clearing misery from your system, leaving you calm and relaxed.
Herbs can be your allies in helping fight stress, flushing toxins from the body, combating adrenaline overload, all while supporting your physical health.
Here are the seven best herbs to reduce stress and the effects of stress.
1. Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). My mother first introduced me to Red Clover as part of her ‘Cure What Ails Ya’ tea when I was a teenager, and I make a batch of that tea every winter, both to gift and to drink. Red Clover contains isoflavones, plant based chemicals that produce estrogen like effects in the body and is a source of many nutrients including calcium, chromium, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, thiamine, and vitamin C. These isoflavones have been associated with an increase in HDL (aka ‘good’) cholesterol in women. Another study found that menopausal women taking red clover supplements had stronger, more flexible arteries (called arterial compliance), which may help prevent heart disease (a risk for women post-menopause). Women with a history of breast cancer should not take red clover.
2. Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla). Chamomile has antibacterial and sedative properties. Research indicates that drinking the tea was associated with a significant increase in urinary levels of hippurate, a breakdown product of certain plant-based compounds known as phenolics, some of which have been associated with increased antibacterial activity. The tea also increases glycine, an amino acid that relieves muscle spasms. Glycine also acts as a nerve relaxant, making the tea a mild sedative. Levels of both hippurate and glycine remained elevated for up to two weeks after the study participants stopped drinking the tea, indicating that the compounds may remain active for quite some time. Another study found that chamomile may have modest benefits for some people with mild to moderate General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Some people may be allergic to chamomile, particularly if they are allergic to ragweed — test before ingesting.
3. Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus). Known primarily for its culinary uses, tarragon has been the subject of a research studies, primarily in the Middle East. These studies show that an extract of A. dracunculus increased glucose uptake by cells significantly after seven days of treatment. There was also a reduction in insulin levels indicating improved insulin sensitivity by the cells. Another study found that the extract reduced blood sugar significantly in diabetics that had elevated blood sugar levels. Muscles need glucose to function, and a study found that an extract increased glucose transport into cells from the bloodstream. It also reduced glucose synthesis in the liver in diabetic laboratory animals. Note that an extract of the herb was used in all of these studies; all the components of the plant may not be equally effective as treatments depending on their chemical composition.
4. Dill (Anethum graveolens). Dill is one of the best herbs to use when experiencing stomach upset, a common side effect of stress. The seed is aromatic, carminative, mildly diuretic, galactogogue, stimulant and stomachic (to use the formal language), which means it smells good, prevents gas, produces urine, increases breast milk, increases alertness, and improves stomach functioning. It also cures urinary complaints, piles and mental disorders. Add it to your food and enjoy its benefits.
5. Rosemary (Rosmarini officinalis). One of the side effects of stress is increased LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels and a corresponding risk of heart disease. Research on mice showed a significant reduction in LDL and an increase in HDL cholesterol levels. The same study found that rosemary plays a protective role against free radicals, decomposing them before they reach the cellular target.
6. Sage (Salvia officinalis). Sage enhances memory and may be beneficial in treating patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. It has also been shown to reduce cholesterol. Finally, a cream containing sage (and rhubarb) extract was as effective as a prescription medicine in eliminating cold sores.
7. St John’s Wort (Hypericum formosum). St. John’s Wort is fairly well known for its ability to treat clinical depression (a common side effect of stress) in many cases as well as on prescription antidepressant medicine. It contains a chemical known as hyperforin which inhibits the uptake of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline at the synapses. Unfortunately this herb has a lot of negative interactions with other herbs and medication, so be very careful when using this herb and absolutely involve your doctor in the process.
The best way to use these herbs is to cook with them, or make teas. Herbal supplements are available, although they can be quite pricey.
Stress and negative emotions are inextricably linked; stress often leads to anxiety, depression, and that insipid feeling of helplessness. Stress can make you feel like you are tightly wound, ready to snap if the pressure increases even a little bit. It may also cause a sense of paralysis or being fallow and unable to create. Research has consistently shown that stress, no matter how it manifests, causes specific physiological changes. In prehistoric times, these physical changes were essential for survival, and even now the stress response can be an asset for raising levels of performance during critical events, such as a sports activity, an important meeting, or in situations of actual danger or crisis.
When stress becomes persistent and low-level, however, it does physical or psychological damage. Stress activates the adrenal glands, producing the hormone cortisol which helps with the ‘fight or flight’ response that is our reaction to stress. When we experience chronic stress, however, cortisol in the bloodstream leads to a variety of unhealthy problems:
• Impaired cognitive performance
• Suppressed thyroid function
• Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
• Decreased bone density
• Decrease in muscle tissue
• Higher blood pressure
• Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, slowed wound healing, and other health consequences
• Increased abdominal fat, which is associated with a greater amount of health problems than fat deposited in other areas of the body.
One of my favorite de-stressors is probably a real annoyance to my neighbors: loud music and dancing. I have a CD compilation I’ve created specifically to lift my mood and move my body. I turn the stereo up as loud as I can stand (my pets flee) and let the music wash through me and over me, moving my body as it desires. Relatedly, powerful drumming is an ancient technique for driving out demons and achieving a deep trance state. I can’t help but think that those deep pounding rhythms are perfect for driving out the demon of depression. Research has shown that drumming can produce a deep sense of relaxation, reduce stress, and lower blood pressure.
Meditation is another way to reduce stress, requiring only a bit of privacy, quiet, and time. Meditation, specifically the technique called ‘relaxation response,’ produces a state of deep relaxation in which our breathing, pulse rate, blood pressure, and metabolism are decreased. The technique consists of the silent repetition of a word, sound, or phrase while sitting quietly with eyes closed for 10 to 20 minutes and breathing though your nose in a free and natural way. You can choose any word or phrase you like. You can use a sound such as “om,” a word such as “one” or “peace,” or a word with special meaning to you. Intruding worries or thoughts should be ignored or dismissed to the best of your ability by focusing on the repetition. It’s OK to open your eyes to look at a clock while you are practicing, but do not set an alarm. When you have finished, remain seated, first with your eyes closed and then with your eyes open, and gradually allow your thoughts to return to everyday reality. I have taught this technique to many people over the years and every single one was able to do it. One mother of three small children used to retreat to the bathroom for her 10 minutes, it was a place guaranteed to provide privacy.
Touching yourself and self grooming is a powerful natural stress relief mechanism that can be profoundly soothing. Universally, grooming behavior is used by mammals to create intimacy, reinforce social network, and release stress. Brushing or combing the hair significantly lowers stress, especially if it is done for a longer than normal period of time. (For those of us with short hair, stroking the scalp produces the same effect.) A variant is to sit down, hanging the head down while rubbing the pads of your fingers over the scalp in a slow circular motion. Stroking your arms in slow deliberate manner is stress reducing.
There are a number of de-stressing techniques that are good for any kind of stress.
Deep breathing, the same in-through-the-nose and out-through-the-mouth technique often used to induce meditation, can work wonders and can be done anywhere. If you feel overwhelmed, close your eyes and spend several minutes focusing on nothing but your breathing. With each inhalation, imagine the air expanding your lungs and flowing into every part of your body. As you exhale, visualize any tension being released from you like poisonous gas.
Day dreaming is a wonderful way to change your stressful state. Begin with a few deep breaths, then start to fantasize whatever will make you happiest in that moment. be promoted to the job you covet or take those extra bows on the stage at Carnegie Hall. Walk on a mountaintop, or fly through the clouds. Knowing you have this escape hatch to a better place open to you at any time can make even the most miserably stressful situation more bearable.
Grounding by collecting scattered energies and connecting into the comforting stability of Mother Earth can greatly reduce stress. Ideally you’ll be able to actually touch the ground during exercise, but any place where you can stand still for a few minutes will do. Visualize all your stress collecting in the center of your body, and then push it out of you into Mother Earth.
Salt and water combined with intent make for a simple ‘wash’ to pour over the soles of your feet and over your hands. This cleans those energy points. If you are feeling particularly daunted, try swiping your salt water hands across your brow — cleansing the third eye — or adding salt to your bath water and immersing yourself in it completely.
Take a bath. Once a week, add a handful of Epsom salts, 10 drops of essential oil (see above for my recommendations), and 1/2 cup of baking soda to your hot bath. Stir deosil with intent to dissolve. Sit in the bath for at least 20 minutes, visualizing toxins leaving your body and feeling balance returning to your life.
Yoga is a wonderful way to reduce stress. Here are a few postures that anyone can do, almost anywhere.
1. Lie on the floor, buttocks up against a wall, legs extended up the wall (you’ll look like an ‘L’). Put your hands on your belly or rest them on the mat above your head. Close your eyes, relax your jaw, and drop your chin slightly. Breathe deeply and slowly in this position for 3 to 10 minutes.
2. Lie on the floor, knees bent a comfortable distance from your buttocks. Tilt your hips just slightly — it should feel relaxing — so that your back is mostly flat on the floor. Breathe deeply in this position for 10-20 minutes. (I combine this posture with meditation.)
A Spell Against Stress
Repeat calmly, letting it ease tension from your body and producing a deep sense of relaxation:
calm in my center
there I will go
This is my will
and it is so.
Stress can be overwhelming, but de-stressing doesn’t have to be. I wish you a return to health and comfort!