Stress Management

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.

Is yoga a good way to relieve stress?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I know yoga has a lot of physical benefits, but is it true yoga can help reduce stress as well?

DEAR READER: Many people initially come to yoga to become physically fit, but they soon discover the psychological benefits. In addition to being great exercise, yoga is one of the best antidotes to the stress of modern living. I won't go as far as saying it is a fountain of youth, but I will say it can be a fountain of calm and equanimity.

How do breathing exercises work to relieve stress?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm under a lot of stress from my job. I've heard that a technique called "breath focus" might help. Can you tell me more about this?

DEAR READER: Stress reduction techniques definitely can reduce your level of stress. The best-known technique is the "relaxation response" first popularized by my colleague here at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Herbert Benson. These techniques have given all of us a weapon against stress.