July 9, 2001 -- From chain-smoking traders whose highs and lows mimic those of the market to moms juggling home and work responsibilities, stress is omnipresent and takes its toll on physical and mental health.
But learning an Eastern meditative practice called mindfulness can help take the edge off life's stress, according to a study inthe July issue of American Journal of Public Health.
Mindfulness has been shown to help people with anxiety disorders, chronic pain, depression, and other stress-related conditions. By focusing on body sensations and breathing, mindfulness involves cultivating a calmness and adopting a larger perspective on life's difficulties -- but not necessarily changing your thinking or coping style.
Three-quarters of the general population report some level of stress in a given two-week period, and half of them consider their stress to be moderate to high, according to the study. And mental stress can have physical effects on the body.
Of 62 "stressed-out" people, those who participated in an eight-week mindfulness program reported less psychological distress, less stress from daily hassles, and fewer medical symptoms than those who did not participate in the training. The program included one 2.5-hour class each week, one eight-hour retreat, and training in four methods of meditation, general yoga postures, and other stress-busting techniques
This is the first study to look at meditation and stress-reduction techniques in people who reported high stress levels, but did not have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder, says study author Kimberly A. Williams, PhD, a research assistant professor in the department of community medicine and director of the program for integrative medicine at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
"Stress will change hormone levels in undesirable ways, alter blood sugar, increase heart rate, and change your immune response," Virginia Williams, PhD, president and CEO of Williams' Life Skills Inc., a Durham, N.C.-based program aimed at helping people live and work better by reducing stress and learning coping skills.
Exercise and other mediation practices including mindfulness are worth learning, she says. But she adds, "you can't wait until you are paralyzed by stress to learn them. You have to start before that so they can be useful when you need them."
"One of the first steps toward controlling stress is to become aware of your thoughts and feelings -- because that's your body's way of saying that something is happening. And the second step is to evaluate those thoughts and feeling," she says.
Then, separate out things that are important and modifiable, and change them. Stop worrying about the things you can't change, like the weather or being stuck in a traffic jam, she says.
And, she adds, when you think about negative situations, silently say, "STOP!" And distract yourself by thinking about things you like to think about.
You also can try this one-minute relaxation exercise anytime you feel stress:
"Begin by saying 'STOP' and picturing a red stop sign. Look straight ahead and take a deep breath in, and as you breath out, say, 'relax'," she tells WebMD. "Repeat this three times, and on the next inhale, clench your fist when you breath in and in the exhale, let tension out of the fist."
On the next inhale, tighten and relax your feet and toes; then on the final inhale, tighten and relax your shoulders and neck.