Let's Talk

The Cost of Stress

Stress is expensive

When we remain in a constantly activated high stress mindset, we negatively impact our long term health and our pocket book.

Chronic stress costs money and affects every aspect of our lives. It has long term impact on our personal health and it especially affects our families, our relationships, and our ability to do quality work on our job. Our worries and fears have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.   

Replacing negative thinking and behavior patterns with positive problem solving can reduce distress and allow us to be proactive. 

In a Wellness workshop I gave several years ago, the following facts and figures were available at that time. Although these statistics are several years old, they give us a chilling reminder of what chronic stress can cost us. 

• 30 million Americans have some form of major heart or blood-vessel disease

• One million Americans have a heart attack every year

• 25 million Americans have high blood pressure

• 8 million Americans are alcoholics

• $15.6 billion are lost by American industry each year because of alcoholism

• 5 billion doses of tranquilizers are prescribed each year

• 5 billion does of barbiturates are prescribed each year

• $19.4 billion are lost by American industry each year because of premature employee death

• $15 billion are lost by American industry each year because of stress-related absenteeism

Stress costs the American industry about $300 billion annually or $7,500 per worker per year. Those statistics are probably higher today.

Stress Affects our Immune System

In 2004, a team of psychologists published findings from a review of nearly 300 scientific studies linking chronic stress and the immune system.  These studies, dating from 1960 to 2001 and involving 18,941 test subjects, showed incontrovertible evidence that stress causes changes in the immune system.

Our immune system helps us fight off diseases. What they found was that short-term stress temporarily boosts immunity, but chronic stress weakens the immune system, making people more vulnerable to common ailments and serious diseases.  In particular, the elderly and people already suffering from an illness become more susceptible to changes in the immune system due to chronic stress. 

Other studies show that it isn’t just the stress we are feeling today that harms our ability to fight off disease.  Exposure to chronic stress early in life makes us even more vulnerable to a depressed immune system throughout our lifetime.

Stress deteriorates behaviors and lifestyles 

When stressed we don’t take care of ourselves.  We are more likely to overeat, eat foods high in carbs, fat and sugar or junk food. Foods offer us a quick relaxer from our stress. When stressed, we don’t exercise or take presecribed medication. Or, we overmedicate.   Alcohol, tobacco or other drugs are used as a quick fix.  

If you find yourself in constant turmoil, high anxiety and worry, it may be important to take a look at ways you can reduce these levels. There are many things we have no control over.  But we can choose different responses that can minimize stress instead of escalating it. 

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

 

How Chronic Distress Impacts Your Health

Distress is epidemic

It has been estimated that in the western world two-thirds – 75% – of all office visits to physicians are stress-related.

It is a major contributing factor either directly or indirectly to the six leading causes of death in the United States, including coronary artery disease, cancer, respiratory disorders, accidental injuries, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.  

Stress aggravates such conditions as

    • Multiple sclerosis
    • Diabetes
    • Herpes
    • Mental Illness
    • Alcoholism and drug abuse
    • Family discord and violence

 

Stress can make us sick. It isn’t just a theory. Research can measure the results of stress in our bodies. Too much stress over time becomes distress that can have a cumulative damaging effect on our health and life.

A research study at Duke University indicated that mental stress depletes our body of oxygen reducing blood supply to the heart by restricting blood vessels (Ischemia). Myocardial ischemia is a temporary condition that if left untreated can be a precursor to a heart attack. Ongoing tension, frustration and sadness can trigger a drop in blood flow to the heart.

Effects of Prolonged Stress

When we are constantly putting our bodies into survival flight/fight mode, we increase adrenaline into our system that causes our heart to pound and blood pressure to rise adding to the normal wear and tear of our blood vessels and arteries. The fatty acids and glucose dumped into the bloodstream to give us energy to fight or run from a real physical danger, now with nowhere to go, can eventually deposit themselves in the crags and cranies of our arteries and veins.

The damaging consequences of chronically over activating your cardiovascular system has been well documented. If your blood pressure rises to accommodate running away from the hungry tiger at your door, you are adapting and using the F/F system as it was intended.

But when blood pressure is consistently raised because we keep  thinking about our spouse’s transgressions, our dismal work place, the co-worker that drives us up a wall, the constant fear of losing our job, etc. we are headed for trouble.

If you already have heart disease, even small, run-of-the mill stressors, along with anger and hostility greatly increase the risk factor of further damage even when on a low-fat diet. 

Chronic stress keeps the immune system depressed as well so we are more susceptible to disesases and illnesses.

So do we need to take stress serious? Yes we do.  Learning to relax your mind and body is part of it, but the next step is examing the thoughts and beliefs that keep us locked in fear, high anxiety, and worry. 

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Stress Facts

Stress is universal. Everyone experiences it in some way – every day.

Stress is normal and natural. We can’t live without stress. It enables us to set and achieve goals and enjoy life. Stress is also a survival system that alerts us to danger and prepares us to meet that danger.

How we perceive what we can do and what we can’t do in life, can either energize us to accomplish goals or create unwanted stress or distress.

Any situation that we perceive as threatening, whether physically life-threatening or simply embarrassing or emotionally threatening will trigger a Fight-Flight stress response.

Stress is triggered by what we believe is happening. It is a subjective process. A loud bang in the night can send the heart racing until we discover it was the cat knocking something over.

Past experiences can trigger stress. Past traumatic and unpleasant experiences can be triggered over and over again along with all the feelings associated with it.

The more anxiety, resentment, anger and frustration we can work through and let go, the healthier we become.

The best protection against heart attacks is love. The heart that loves is free and joyful. In the expression of love, the give and take of love, we become healthier. Hanging on to resentments and past grievances do the opposite.

A low self-worth can create corrosive stress.

How you see yourself, what you feel about yourself, what you believe others think of you, etc. all have an effect on our stress levels. What are you saying to yourself about who you are? What’s your self-talk like?

Stress can become a habit. We develop habitual ways to respond to life that can be stress-laden.

If our first responses to events are consistently fear, anxiety, worry, panic you immediately put yourself into survival mode instead of a problem-solving mode. One keeps you frozen like a deer in the headlights – the other uses that concern to find solutions.

We all experience life events differently and respond to stressors differently. Stressors are anything that create some kind of response within our body.

When we interpret life events as consistently containing some kind of danger, we will constantly gear up to fight or flee.  When we change our perceptions, we change our responses. 

We all react to the world in different ways. We all handle the amount of stress in our lives differently. We all need a certain amount of tension to complete goals and do our every day work.

What is  important for each of us is to learn what things trigger unwanted or unnecessary distress. Then we can alter our thinking to so we can use our stress energy to complete goals instead of fighting a paper tiger.  

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Visualizations to use with Healing

I have used healing visualization many times when recuperating from surgeries and illness.

After a back fusion, I used the recovery time in the hospital to visualize healing and reduce pain levels.  Its amazing how powerful such images can be.  The visualization reduced pain levels so I did not need all the pain medication available to me and the relaxation and visualization increased and maximized my healing. 

Healing Visualizations

Here are some visualization images you can use to deepen relaxation, reduce pain levels and induce healing. Allow your mind to create the images that are right for you. Any relaxation and visualization exercises are better when you have time and a quiet place to do them. 

Find a quiet spot where you can sit comfortably or lie down and will not be interrupted. Go through the relaxation exercise that relaxes all the parts of your body.  These are never done while driving.

Healing Pool of Water 

To deepen that relaxation, visualize yourself going down a flight of stairs. Count in your mind from 1 – 10 as you take each step down into a deeper relaxed state.

When you have reached the bottom, imagine you are standing beside a beautiful healing pool. Place yourself in it. Feel its relaxing water healing every cell in your body. Imagine a bright light shining on you that intensifies the healing.

Stay there as long as you want before returning up the stairs to your relaxed spot. Slowly open your eyes. Be sure to give yourself time to allow energy to flow back into your muscles before resuming activities. 

Healing Mist

After relaxing your body, lie still and imagine that with every breath you take in, you are breathing in a healing mist. This healing mist flows throughout your body, touching every nerve cell, calming and healing and releasing it from pain.

My “Pac Men”

This a visualization I used after back surgery. As I recovered in the hospital, many times during the day I closed my eyes and focused on breathing in a healing mist that went immediately to the surgery site.  As it touched nerve endings reducing inflamation and pain, I created images of the blood cells working away, healing and mending the bones.  They took on the image of little “Pac Men”.  My mind drew that image from old Pac Men computer games. 

Closing the Gate

Pain is experienced in the brain. The gate-control theory of pain tells us that our sensory pain signals travel to the nerves in our spinal chord then up the spine to our brain.

One way of reducing pain levels is visualizing little gates along our spinal chord that we can open and close. 

Pain is important as it tells us when something is wrong that we need to pay attention to. But when we are dealing with ongoing chronic pain, we can reduce some of that intensity by relaxing and visualizing ourselves closing those gates from time to time.  

Throwing the Switch

Another similar image is imagining a switch, like a large light switch, at the base of the brain. When you push the switch to the off position, you stop the pain messages. 

Again pain messages are important.  They tell us something is wrong and we need to pay attention.  But when we continue to experience chronic pain after the problem has been attended to, these visualizations can relieve pain signals. 

These visualizations have been created by people in the healing profession that I have used in my own life over the years.  They are examples of how we can create our own visualizations using images that put us in charge of our health, our healing and our pain.  

The concept is the same: choose the images and thoughts that induce healing versus creating tension. Our first response to pain is to tighten up.  Relaxation and visualization allows the blood to flow so our bodies can heal.  It already knows how to heal.  We are just creating an environment that maximizes that healing.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Mini Relaxation Exercises

Here are some additional ways to reduce stress on an ongoing basis throughout the day. They are quick and easy and once you start doing them, they become habits that continue to make life easier and more pleasant. 

Mini-Relaxation Exercises

1. Develop the habit of becoming aware of your breathing throughout the day. If it is fast and rapid, it is probably shallow and  increasing your stress levels.  Immediately, take a few deep, slow breaths and as you breathe out, say to yourself: “Let Go” and create an image of all the tension draining away.

2. Use mini visualizations like the one posted last week – standing under a beautiful waterfall.  Create others that bring you an immediate calming and relaxing response. Bring to your mind a peaceful walk through the woods or anything that will trigger deep peace and relaxation. I like to reflect on the promises God gives us throughout scripture.  It creates an immediate image of love and peace.    

3. Become a kid again! Imagine yourself rolling down a grassy hillside or covering yourself with leaves or running through mud puddles. We can release the kid inside us through our imagination. Even though we aren’t doing it physically, we are reaping the benefits mentally.

4. Throughout the day, focus your mind on what you do like rather than what you don’t like.  You can bring positive thoughts into any situation.  

5. Laugh.  Reframe your situation into something funny.  Even the most disasterous event can have its humorous or comical side.  We love to listen to  comedians because they take our tragedies and turn them into humor. 

6. Whenever you feel tension, anger, anxiety or stress, do the following: stop, take some deep slow breaths and then ask yourself:

Why am I feeling this way? Am I simply reacting to someone or something I have no control over? Is there any reason I need to remain in this anger mode? If I do, will it make me feel any better or solve the problem I am facing? Is it worth feeling upset over?

Instead of hanging on to anger, anxiety, fear and stress, let these emotions tell you what needs to be done, what you can do and what you can’t.  Then look for solutions instead of hanging onto resentment, anger, frustration, worry, etc.  

Throughout your day, whenever you feel tension and stress, take some slow, deep breathes, take a quick internal inventory and breathe into the tension spots.  Imagine your tension and stress are a bundle of rocks and you have just sent them rolling down the hillside. If you see your muscles tied in knots, imagine you are untying the knots and you see the muscles relaxing. Allow your mind to create the visualization that works for you.   

©Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

 

Use Relaxation Strategies Anytime – Anywhere

Once you are able to relax and let go of unnecessary tension by using a relaxation exercise once a day, you can start using that relaxation response wherever you are.  

The body quickly responds to breathing evenly, slowly, and deeply. When you add such phrases as “letting go”, your body will let go of tension and become more relaxed anywhere, anytime.  

Here are some ways to use the relaxation response at any time:

Healing Waterfall

This is a quick visualization I have used many times when I have been on the run and I want to maximize those minutes when I am waiting in line, in the elevator, in the doctor’s office, etc.

Since I have already taught the mind to respond to both images and accompanying words, I can use this process to quickly reduce stress levels. Instead of thinking about how slow the line is moving or what I need to be doing, I simply use that time instead to relax. 

If you can, close your eyes for a moment. If not, you can still visualize.

Focus on breathing calmly, evenly and deeply.  Imagine yourself standing underneath a beautiful, warm, gently cascading waterfall. Actually feel the gentle stream of water wash over you and as it does, visualize your tension flowing away as well. Let go of your stress and allow yourself to relax in this quick moment of relaxation.

Driving

Nothing can create tension faster than to be late for an appointment and the traffic reduces your progress to a crawl. Your thoughts increase the tension in your body and you feel angry, anxious, frustrated, pressured, helpless, aggressive, etc.

Use your mind to bring you calm instead of adding more stress. You  are stuck in traffic. You will not arrive at your destination any faster by feeling angry and getting more and more tense. So change your thoughts.

Instead of creating additional stress, go with the flow of events that you have no control over. Use this time to monitor your thoughts and attitudes. Reframe your situation. 

Our thoughts can create stress or it can reduce stress.  We choose.

I can’t make the traffic go any faster by thinking about why it should, must or has to. But you can tell yourself, since I have to go slow, I will just use this time to think about pleasant things.  Recall some of the pleasant memories you have used in your relaxation/visualization exercises. Think about how much you love your family. 

Traffic slow downs often make other drivers become aggressive and we react to their aggressiveness with our own.  “You can’t cut me off like that”  or “You jerk, you didn’t need to cut in front of me”.  You have a choice to either allow yourself to react to what others are doing or to tell yourself it isn’t worth it to allow myself to get frustrated and angry over something so trivial. 

We may get angry for a moment, but we choose whether to hang on to that anger or not.  

Stay in the moment rather than fretting about the future or what you should or ought to be doing. You can either be reactive or proactive.  It is your choice at all times.

©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Added Benefit of Visualization

Deep relaxation of the body and mind may feel  threatening if you are a person who has always been in tight control of everything. But when you allow yourself to become deeply relaxed you are able to let go of the need to be controlling and instead are able to take charge of your life. You will be  able to consider options and make better choices.     

Visualization can enhance any  relaxation exercise. It is especially effective when used in any healing process such as   recovery from surgeries, illnesses or simply using visualization to see yourself building a strong immune system. Relaxation and visualization can help manage and reduce pain levels. 

Our mind responds to images as well as words

Close your eyes for a second and imagine you are cutting in half a plump, juicy lemon. Pick up a piece and put it into your mouth. Suck on that lemon for awhile.

If you are like me, the image of sucking on a lemon is enough to make your mouth pucker and you can almost taste the intense sour flavor. There is an immediate response to the image you hold in your mind. 

Remember a time when you were relaxed and enjoying a special event.  You will find that your body responds to what you experienced before.  

Think of visualization as using positive images you want to hold in your mind that will increase your ability to deeply relax.  As your body relaxes it is able to heal and restore itself.  Visualization is a quick and easy way to enhance that relaxation and healing process.

Creating a safe, special place 

If you have lived your life remaining hyper alert to everything around you that might cause you harm, the process of relaxation can be challenging and even intimidating. Relaxing in the real world for you means putting yourself in potential harm’s way. Safety for you is maintaining a rigid hyper alert state.

Remember, you are simply relaxing in your space.  Think of visulazation as creating a safe place in your mind where nobody can enter or intrude unless you give them permission. 

Using the relaxation model given in previous blogs, while relaxed   create an image of a comfortable and safe place in your mind. Imagine youself in this safe, peaceful and restful  place.  

Or bring a past memory to your mind when you were in the woods, or sitting next to a pond or stream. Perhaps it is enjoying the beauty of wildflowers or gardens. Perhaps it is at the beach where you can lie down and feel the warm sand and smell the salty ocean spray. Perhaps it is a church where you go in and draw comfort from the spiritual connection to God. Create peaceful and relaxing scenes. Feel the temperature and smell the aromas.

Visualization is a way to bring back the experience of doing nothing and relaxing in that nothing. You are just being.     

When you have attained a level of deep relaxation, tell yourself you are ready to resume your duties. Gradually allow yourself to return to the moment, open your eyes, and stretch your muscles to get the blood flowing before getting up.

Fifteen minutes of deep relaxation can be more restful than a night’s sleep.

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Relax quickly

Teach yourself to relax quickly with a few simple words

Teaching Yourself to Relax

You can quickly relax your mind and body anytime, anywhere by putting in place a relaxation response habit.

Getting Started

Find a quiet, comfortable place where you feel safe and you won’t be disturbed. Tell people you don’t want to be disturbed, put out a DO NOT DISTURB sign, shut off your cell phone.

Get comfortable in a chair that supports your back, neck and arms, sitting in an upright position with both feet on the floor and arms at your side and hands in your lap. Cover yourself with a blanket, loosen belts, etc.

This exercise can be done sitting up or lying down. When you lie down, however, as you relax you might fall asleep. Falling asleep might be what you need, but to get the most benefit from this exercise it is helpful to remain awake. A recliner works nicely.

Breathing that is Relaxing

Close your eyes and begin breathing slowly and evenly. Begin by just focusing on your breathing. Most of us take little short breaths and never fill our lungs. This shallow breathing does not relax us.  Breathe deeply, filling your lungs with air. Notice your stomach area expand as the lungs fill with air. Practice breathing deeply like this until it feels comfortable.  Breathe in slowly through the nose, hold for just a second and then slowly let it out.   

As you sit with your eyes closed, breathing in and out, notice how much calmer and relaxed you begin to feel simply by breathing effectively. Practice this for awhile until your breathing becomes even more relaxing.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

The next phase of this exercise is to progressively relax the different parts of your body. I like to start from the head and work my way down.

Tighten the muscles around the eyes and forehead. Feel the tension. Then take a deep calming breath and as you let the air out, relax all the muscles that you have tensed. Next tense the jaw and cheek muscles, take a breath and then release both tension and air.

Continue relaxing the different muscle groups, continuing with your neck, shoulders, back, arms and fingers, stomach area, hips, legs and feet. Follow the same sequence of “tense, breathe and relax”.

Now choose one of the following phrases to say to your self as you follow this sequence. As you breathe out say, Letting go” or “I am relaxing more and more” or “I am relaxing deeper and deeper” or “All my tension is melting away”. Alternate them as you systematically relax your body.

By pairing the tensing of muscles and relaxing breathing along with words that tell your brain you are letting go of tension and stress, you are associating the words or phrases with the actions of the relaxation process.

After you have relaxed your entire body, take a moment and focus inward, relaxing your internal organs as well.

Enjoy this relaxed state for a few minutes. Then open your eyes.  But before you resume your activities, take a moment to allow your body to energize again before getting up. Stretch your arms and move in your chair.

When you have done this exercise every day for a few weeks you will be able to relax the tension in your body anytime anywhere by simply taking some slow even breaths, focus on the areas of the body where the tension is and telling yourself “letting go”. When I do this, I can immediately feel the tension drain away. Using my teaching Relaxation CD allows you to just listen and follow. 

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

Only 15 Minutes A Day

Fifteen Minutes can do wonders

We can learn to quickly relax our bodies and reduce tension or high levels of stress by practicing a simple  relaxation exercise once a day. 

Learning how to systematically reduce the tension throughout your body can quickly lower your stress levels.  Taking the time to learn how to do this can have enormous health benefits. 

You might think that adding one more “must do” item to your “To Do” list will only add more stress to your life, but the long term benefits are worth the small amount of time it takes to put this habit in place.  

Once a Day is All it Takes 

Once a day find a quiet time and space away from family or work.  During that time, close your eyes, tense the different muscle groups, breathe and then release the tension as you expell your air. As you systematically relax all the different parts of your body, tell yourself you are letting go of all the stress that is stored there. Pairing relaxing phrases with the breathing and relaxing teaches your brain to associate it with calming breathing, relaxing, and letting go of tension.  

It is difficult to learn how to relax on our own, as we often try to “make” ourselves relax instead of “allowing” the body to relax. It is really helpful to use a relaxation CD that helps put the process in place. 

An emmy-award winning composer friend and I collaborated to produce the Relaxation CD available on my website.  The music is composed specifically to match the simple script that teaches you how to become aware of where you hold the tension in your body and how to quickly let go of that tension. 

The script is based on relaxation techniques taught by a physician years ago working with bio-feedback. In the CD, you tense different muscle groups, breathe into that tension, and then slowly release both the air and tension. You learn to allow intruding thoughts to simply pass as you re-focus on relaxing.  

The CD is both relaxing and instructive. We hold tension in different parts of our body. In the process of going through this exercise, you will discover where you hold your stress and tension and how to let go of it quickly. 

When you add to the sequencing of tensing, breathing and release, words such as “letting go, relaxing deeper and deeper” you are increasing your ability at a later time to quickly release the tension in your targeted area. 

Our brain responds to words. Without realizing it, we are constantly streaming some kind of stress loaded statements in our mind all day. Purposefully choosing different words that associate slow, deep breathing with instructions to let go of tension, helps return the body to a restful state.

It takes about 30 days to put a new habit in place. If you listened and followed the CD every day, you will put in place stress release responses that you can use anytime anywhere.

In Thursday’s blog, I will give you the basic information needed to put in place your own relaxation exercise. 

Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC