Stress Management

Does breath focus help to relieve stress?

DEAR DOCTOR K: A friend recommended a technique called "breath focus" to help me deal with stress. Does this help?

DEAR READER: Breath focus is a simple yet powerful technique that can elicit the "relaxation response," a state of profound peace and rest. The relaxation response was popularized by my colleague at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Herbert Benson. It has given all of us a weapon against stress.

What is the relaxation response?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm under a lot of stress, and I'd like to learn more about the "relaxation response." What is it? How can I achieve it?

DEAR READER: At Harvard Medical School, we do a lot of traditional "Western" scientific research. But we also have a long history of studying "Eastern" concepts of how the body works, disease and treatment. In the late 1970s, Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson conducted research into the health hazards of stress -- and the body's potential to heal itself. One antidote to stress that Dr. Benson studied was the relaxation response.

Does stress make us age faster?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I recently heard that studies are showing that stress makes us age faster. Is there anything to that?

DEAR READER: I'll bet you are referring to studies about the effects of ongoing stress on our cells. Each of us is a collection of 13 trillion cells. Anything that causes our cells to age causes us to age. And chronic stress does cause our cells to age faster.

Can writing in a journal help ease stress?

DEAR DOCTOR K: My therapist told me that regularly writing in a journal might help ease my stress and improve my mood. Is there any evidence to back this up?

DEAR READER: Yes, there is, if you are disciplined about it and do it the right way. Some of my patients and friends have kept a journal following a major and unexpected life stress -- say, a cancer diagnosis, a car accident or a layoff.

Does “mindfulness meditation” really help relieve stress and anxiety?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I've heard a lot about "mindfulness meditation." Does it really help relieve stress and anxiety?

DEAR READER: Mindfulness meditation has become quite popular in recent years. The practice involves bringing your mind's attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future. Many people practice it hoping to stave off stress and stress-related health problems.

How does deep breathing help to control stress?

DEAR DOCTOR K: How does deep breathing help to control stress?

DEAR READER: When we're under stress, our muscles tighten, our heart beats faster, our blood pressure rises and our breathing quickens. The relaxation response is the opposite of the stress response; it puts the brakes on the biological changes that put us into overdrive. And it turns out we can elicit the relaxation response at will -- by taking deep breaths.

Why does my stomach clench up in knots when I’m stressed?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Whenever I'm stressed out my stomach clenches up in knots. Why does it do that?

DEAR READER: A particularly sad experience is described as "gut-wrenching." Hearing about a gruesome crime makes you "feel nauseated." An upcoming presentation gives you "butterflies in your stomach." We use these expressions because anger, anxiety, sadness, elation and other emotions can trigger symptoms in our gastrointestinal tract.

Does stress cause our cells to age faster?

DEAR DOCTOR K: For years I've heard that chronic stress is bad for your health, but recently I heard something that made me take this seriously: Stress causes our cells to age faster. Is this really true?

DEAR READER: I'll bet you're talking about research showing that stress affects the telomeres. These structures are a part of every cell in our body. And if that's what you're asking about, it really is true. In fact, it's part of a discovery so important that it was honored with the Nobel Prize.

I eat when I’m stressed — How can I stop this impulse?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Why do I eat when I'm stressed out? Can you suggest ways to help me overcome this impulse?

DEAR READER: Worry and pressure can cause a person to seek comfort, and one of the most immediate forms of comfort is "comfort food." It's good, and it's also a temporary distraction from what you're worrying about. But this is not the whole story.

Stress helps me perform well at my job, but is it unhealthy?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I have a stressful job. I think the stress helps me perform at my best, but my doctor says that in the long run, stress is bad for my health. Is he right?

DEAR READER: Your body reacts to acute stressors with a "fight-or-flight" response. Thirty thousand years ago, the acute stressor for your ancestors may have been the sight of several lions heading in their direction. Today, the acute stressor might be a bus rushing toward you as you cross the street.