We’ve rounded up the latest studies on the connection between stress and illness to show the insidious ways stress can impact our bodies and our minds. Then we give you our best condition-specific relaxation solutions, chosen for their mind-clearing, tension-reducing, and overall calming effects. Practiced regularly, these gentle exercises can help you face health challenges with an open mind.
1. Digestion issues
Latest news: A 2008 study by researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Medicine reports that irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients who engage in self-directed relaxation and deep breathing had significant improvement in their symptoms, including constipation, bloating, and diarrhea. Turns out that too much stressing out contributes to the development of stress-related illnesses, such as IBS. So including relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, and deep breathing will keep your digestive tract, well, on track.
Have a child with IBS? Hypnotherapy could help. A recent study published in Gastroenterology found that children who underwent six sessions of hypnotherapy over three months experienced less stomach pain than those who tried traditional medical treatments. While hypnotherapy doesn’t cure the condition, it seems that visualizing less abdominal pain actually helps reduce the pain of IBS, and kids experience less frequent bouts. While the researchers limited their study to children, they agree this treatment has a good shot at working for adults too.
The challenge: Why do we refer to stressful events as “gut wrenching”? The many nerve endings located in the abdominal organs transform anxiety into digestive issues.
One Solution: Qigong clearing
The slow movement and deep breathing of this qigong practice will quiet your thoughts, soothe the nervous system, and usher fresh energy, or qi, into an agitated abdomen.
Try it: Stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, knees soft. Drop your tailbone toward the floor, elongate your spine, and lift up through the crown of your head. Position your arms, palms facing each other, in front of your abdomen. Keeping your elbows slightly bent, inhale, lifting your arms out to the side and up over your head. As you exhale, turn your palms toward the floor, and push your hands down along the front of your body—moving with resistance, as if you were pushing an invisible ball through water—to return to the starting position. Matthew Cohen, qigong and t’ai chi teacher and founder of Sacred Energy Arts Center in Santa Monica, California, recommends performing clearing for two to three minutes twice a day to manage stress.
Latest news: If stress, anxiety, and depression—a menopausal triple whammy—have got you down, just keep moving. A study by Temple University showed that moderate walking (at about 4 miles per hour) five times a week helped relieve stress and anxiety in postmenopausal women. No need to go to the gym either. The women in the study walked everywhere, from city blocks to shopping malls.
The challenge: Menopause marks a time of major transition—in your hormones, your attitudes, and your life. With your body seemingly calling the shots and your emotions on a veritable roller coaster, you need a stress reliever that will help you feel more in control and let you begin to accept your shifting reality instead of falling victim to it.
One Solution: Yoga’s Reclining Bound Angle Pose (Supta Baddha Konasana)
This restorative yoga pose is particularly suited to your needs because the props support your whole body, giving you a taste of how sweet it feels to completely surrender. By making you feel safe and cared for, the pose offers a perfect antidote to that out-of-control feeling. It also clears your head and, with your belly and chest exposed, promotes deeper breathing, which in turn boosts relaxation. Don’t just take our word for it: A 2008 Duke University study backs up the notion that yoga eases menopausal hot flashes, fatigue, and lack of energy.
Try it: Place a bolster or large, sturdy cushion on the floor, fold a thin blanket into a small rectangle, then place it on one end of the cushion, and roll two towels into tidy bundles. Sit on the floor with the cushion behind you, a few inches away from your sit bones. Bend your knees, and bring the soles of your feet together, placing a rolled up towel (or block) under each knee for support. Gently lower your torso onto the cushion, and lay your head on the blanket. Relax your arms by your sides, palms facing up. Stay here, breathing deeply, for as long as you like—at least five to 10 minutes.
3. Bone and joint health
Latest news: Reducing levels of circulating cortisol (the stress hormone) may reduce your risk for bone loss, says new research in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. In a four-year study of healthy men aged 61 to 72 years, higher cortisol levels were directly related to increased rates of bone loss.
The challenge: How can you reduce your cortisol levels and rebuild bone at the same time?
One Solution: Yoga’s Plank Pose
All yoga poses mitigate stress by teaching us to pay attention to the quality of our breath, slow it down, and connect it to movement. At the same time, certain yoga poses, like Plank Pose, act as a weight-bearing exercise, which maintains and increases bone density. By calling on your entire body—from the soles of your feet to the top of your head—to hold steady for several breaths, this yoga push-up strengthens not only your muscles and bones but your resolve as well.
Try it: Start on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders and knees in line with your hips. Step your feet back until your legs are straight, and only your toes and hands are on the floor. Make sure your fingers point directly forward. Your body should be in one even incline—don’t let your hips rise above or sink below your navel, and keep your head in line with your spine. Root down through your palms, reach your heels back, and extend out through the crown of your head to energize your entire body. Work up to holding steady for 10 complete breaths.
4. High blood pressure
Latest news: Simply being optimistic can help reduce a man’s risk of cardiovascular disease. A study published in the Annals of Family Medicine found that men who believed they were not at risk for heart disease were three times less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke. No one’s suggesting you ditch your healthy habits for a positive-thinking prescription—but it’s certainly worth a shot to do both.
The challenge: Anxiety and stress—and the unhealthy ways we try to de-stress, such as eating poorly, drinking, smoking, etc.—can affect your blood pressure. You need a stress-management technique that slows you down, mentally and physically.
One Solution: Meditation, a technique “From the Path of the 13,000 Steps.”
The number 13,000 represents how many thoughts, on average, you have in a day. This practice aims to bring awareness to 1,000 of those thoughts. This meditation shifts your focus from little things, such as the running commentary in your mind, to big things, such as an awareness of the present moment. This type of breathing meditation also slows your respiratory rate.
Try it: As slowly as you comfortably can, inhale to a count of four, pause for one, and exhale for four. “To make a noticeable difference, you need to do this technique for 20 minutes a day,” says Mark Thornton, author of Meditation in a New York Minute (Sounds True, 2006). “Aim for cumulative minutes, not consecutive.” Thornton recommends doing five minutes on your commute, one minute when you first get to your desk in the morning, two minutes after you finish lunch, and so on, until you reach a total of 20 minutes.
Latest news: If you dream of losing weight, keep dreaming—literally! A new report published in the Archives of General Psychiatry shows that children who sleep less are more likely to be overweight, especially if they don’t get enough rapid-eye-movement (REM) snoozing. “Spending less time in REM sleep decreases leptin levels and increases ghrelin levels—a hormone duo responsible for daytime appetite,” says Dawn Blatner, RD, a nutritionist in Chicago. Furthermore, she says, “The less time you spend in REM, the fewer calories you burn overnight.” All the more reason for all of us to get the recommended seven to nine hours a night.
The challenge: It’s important to learn how to work with weight issues in ways that won’t increase stress levels. Your stress reliever should help you embrace your inherent strength, open yourself up to possibilities, and allow you to let go of what you don’t need.
One Solution: Yoga’s Warrior II Pose (Virabhadrasana II)
Yoga helps you befriend your body, just the way it is right now, and open yourself up to the world around you. In Warrior II Pose, for instance, you experience your stability and weight as a benefit. Opening the chest and heart promotes mental clarity and openness.
Try it: Standing with bare feet on a yoga mat, extend your arms out to the side at shoulder height, palms facing down. Step your legs apart about 31/2 to 4 feet. Turn your right foot out 90 degrees and your left foot in about 45 degrees so your right heel is in line with your left instep. Bend your right knee as deeply as you can, taking care not to extend your knee beyond your ankle. Turn your head to gaze out over your right fingertips. Stay for five to eight complete breaths. Bring your feet together, and repeat on the other side.
Latest news: Researchers from the Medical University of Ohio found that diabetics who participated in 10 biofeedback sessions lowered their average blood glucose levels and still had decreased levels three months later. Biofeedback teaches patients to tune in to their own bodies and control its unconscious functions.
The challenge: High levels of the stress hormone cortisol have been linked to an increased incidence of diabetes-related complications. Your stress-relief technique should be calming and grounding so you can improve your ability to handle life’s little curveballs with grace.
One Solution: T’ai chi, an exercise known as “Commencement”
The mindful movements of t’ai chi are great stress relievers because they provide a means to create a solid connection to the earth, gather fresh energy from the environment around you, and release physical and mental tension. T’ai chi works well for diabetics; a recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine reported that it improves blood glucose levels.
Try it: Stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, knees soft. Drop your tailbone toward the floor, elongate your spine, and lift up through the crown of your head. Position your arms at your sides, palms facing each other. As you inhale, float your arms up to heart level, palms facing down. As you exhale, straighten your elbows, wrists, hands, and fingers, and reach forward. Inhale your hands into your body, in line with your shoulders, bending the elbows toward the floor. Finally, exhale, and push your hands down along the sides of your body until they return to the starting position. “Taking a few moments to set an intention to reduce stress before you start will only increase the benefits of this fundamental t’ai chi practice,” Cohen says. He advises practicing this exercise two to three minutes morning and night.
Latest news: University of Miami researchers found that senior citizens who listen to music for 30 to 40 minutes a day, five days a week, showed an increase in levels of the stress-reducing hormone melatonin. Dementia sufferers often have trouble sleeping, and melatonin helps regulate sleep and waking patterns. The music listeners also slept better and were calmer throughout the study and for up to six weeks after.
The challenge: The deterioration in the connection between cells in the brain, which causes mental decline, is often mirrored by a lack of connection to other people. Look for a form of stress release that combines music and interaction with others.
One Solution: Dancing
In addition to providing exercise and socialization, which have been shown to prevent the mental decline associated with aging, dancing challenges both hemispheres of your brain as well as your memory. Music has also been shown to improve mood, behavior, and quality of life in people suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Try it: Seek out a class at your local Y, gym, senior center, or dance studio. Many venues also offer free dance lessons before musical performances. If you don’t like the first class you take, keep trying until you find one that clicks.