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10 Techniques to Make Stress Help You Stay Young

Dr. Mike expounds on how stress can work in your favor…

10 techniques to make stress help you stay young. 

This column is the second of two on why stress ages you, and on some of the tactics that I offer the patients I coach. Many of us have two thoughts about stress: Either you can eliminate it with a bubble bath, or you live with the stresses weighing on your mind with the tonnage of a cement truck. But the truth is that stress management is not about eliminating stress; after all, as you learned from the first column, stress can be good for you. It is actually all about regulation—tuning the dials of your emotions so you can best handle what life tosses at you. Stress, which is really a complex mix of emotional, physical, and behavioral responses, does not have to sideline you from life or send you straight to the ice-cream tub. Not managing stress can cause your body to age prematurely, and aging defects in your cells happen exponentially, so staying 10 years younger slows aging deficits thirtyfold. That is why what you do today—including choosing to start or continue to stay young now—is so important to your quality of life, maybe for years. Here are some tricks to avoid letting your worries burden—or bury—you.

1. Focus on the moment. Be mindful—that is, pay attention to the present and try to get out of the tracks of the past and the future. That means noticing the things that you normally ignore, like your breath, body sensations, and emotions. A mental body scan, where you focus on a single part of your body at a time, will help you to relax. Here is how to do it:

■ Lie down. 

■ Close your eyes and notice your posture. 

■ Think about the natural flow of your breath, focusing on air filling and leaving the lungs.

■ Notice your toes—any tension, tingling, or temperature change?

■ Move to thinking about your feet, heels, and ankles, all the way up through the knees, thighs, and pelvis. 

■ Continue with each body part—going through both the front and back of your body as you work your way up—finishing with the throat, jaw, tongue, face, and brow. 

Go through your health checklist. Stress is much more manageable when the other aspects of your life—from your general health to your sleep patterns to your eating habits—are in good order. When you do not get enough sleep, for instance, your body produces more stress hormones, making you more vulnerable to the damaging effects of stress. Evaluate which areas in your life need your attention, and work on fixes.

2. Meditate. The goal here is to clear your mind of all thoughts. Discipline yourself to squirrel away five minutes of silence a day. Pick a simple word (like ohm or Hawaii or supercalifrag—oh, you get the point) and repeat it to yourself over and over. Focusing on the one word helps keep distracting thoughts from seeping into your gray matter.

Meditation and deep breathing may help modify the messages sent from the gut and the rest of the body to the brain via the vagus nerve. Controlling the vagus can help with everything from improving memory to boosting immunity. We suggest carving out time before bed to meditate and breathe deeply. 

For deep breathing, lie flat on the floor, with one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Take a deep breath slowly—it should take about 5 seconds for you to inhale (imagine your lungs filling up with air). As your diaphragm pulls your chest cavity down, your belly button should move away from your spine, filling your lungs. Your chest will also widen and perhaps rise. When your lungs feel full, and you even feel a tiny bit of discomfort in the solar plexus just below the breastbone, exhale slowly (taking about 7 seconds). Pull your belly button to your spine to get all the air out.

3. Practice yoga. This ancient practice not only stretches your muscles but also allows your mind to focus and trains your brain for meditation. The beauty of this workout is that people of any skill level can participate; you need to move only as far into each pose as you possibly can. In fact, the only imperative you have to remember is to take deep belly breaths using your diaphragm to pull the lungs down during inspiration. Most of us never take a single deep breath all day long. To exhale, pull your belly button toward your spine to push the diaphragm up and empty all the air from your lungs. Inhaling deeply brings a chemical called nitric oxide from the back of your nose and your sinuses into your lungs. This short-lived gas dilates the air passages in your lungs and the blood vessels surrounding those air passages so you can get more oxygen into your body. Nitric oxide also doubles as a neurotransmitter to help your brain function. 

Yoga helps loosen the muscles and joints that are ignored in your day-to-day life. Routines get the blood flowing as you warm up and free your body to experience the new stresses you will inevitably face each day. The practice also helps you handle the weight of your body more effectively, building bone and muscle strength so you are more resilient. And it improves balance to help prevent falls.

Yoga also helps you to focus your mind on remote parts of your body, such as tight joints and muscles, as you gently but firmly deepen into your poses. Attaining the “empty” mind called for in meditation proves difficult, especially for novices, because the mind wanders. But if you can concentrate on the tension in your hip, for example, as you focus your mind on your pose, then you are well on your way. The goal in yoga is not really emptying your mind, but rather freeing the mind to let any and all ideas rapidly pass through it without any attachment.

4. Learn from Buddhism. Meditation is often associated with Buddhism. But most people know as much about Buddhism as they know about supernova nucleosynthesis. The goal of Buddhist meditation is not to suppress emotions that are harmful (as many might expect), but rather to identify how they arise, how they are experienced, and how they influence us over the long run. For Buddhists, the good life is not achieved by transcending an emotion—not even hatred—but by effectively managing it. Buddhism identifies three mental processes that are most toxic to the mind (and that lead to all kinds of mental suffering):

Craving. Cravings happen when a person exaggerates the good qualities of an object (icing!) while ignoring the bad ones (calories!). Therefore, cravings can disrupt the balance of the mind, easily leading to anxiety, misery, fear, and anger.

Hatred. The reverse of craving, hatred exaggerates the bad qualities and de-emphasizes the good ones. It is driven by the wish to harm or destroy anything that gets in the way. The impression is that the dissatisfaction belongs to the object, when the true source of it is in the mind alone.

Delusion. According to Buddhism, the self is constantly in a state of dynamic flux and is profoundly interdependent on other people and the environment. However, people habitually delude themselves about the actual nature of the self by superimposing the interpretations of their own reality.

To help channel negative emotions, wear a rubber band on your wrist, and every time you find yourself doing something positive (such as resisting cravings or feeling empathy rather than hatred), switch the band to the other wrist. That ritual of positive reinforcement helps reinforce good behavior—and can act as a warning against bad behavior. 

5. Give, then pass. There are few feelings that surpass the feeling of knowing you have helped someone, whether through a financial donation, a mentoring program, or a small, kind gesture. It feels good—and is good. So good, in fact, that research has found that the effect of altruisms small and big is similar to runner’s high (the rush of endorphins). But unlike exercise euphoria, this rush can last a long time. Ninety percent of people who experience this high give their health condition a better grade than those who do not experience it. The reason: Your thoughts about helping others seem to help strengthen your immune system, boost positive emotions, decrease pain, and provide stress relief. Separate studies show that charitable heart attack patients recover faster than those who are not charitable, and those who do volunteer work have death rates two and half times lower than those who do not. Though people very often need help, they also do not want to feel like charity cases. They want the dignity of feeling that they can also pass something along to others. This makes giving even more attractive, because you are priming the pump of a chain reaction that will help many more people than the one group you targeted with your kindness. So be explicit in your giving and ask how the recipient will pass it forward. 

6. Pass the passion. Giving to charity is not the only concept that is important. Equally valuable is the privilege of participating in something bigger than yourself. You do not have to donate money, just time and passion. There is no obligation to society to find a bigger purpose—you have an obligation only to your own health and happiness. And the more you value what you are doing with your mind, the more you will do healthier things with your body.

7. Create rituals. One of the reasons why church, music, and prayer can be so uplifting is that the weekly rituals reinforce a sense of community. You can experience those spiritual highs by attending church, but also through other rituals—such as nature walks with neighbors or an annual trip with family or a nightly dinnertime routine in which each person shares one wonderful thing that happened that day. Rituals also reinforce behaviors. (Smokers are reminded of this every time someone taps the top of a pack of cigarettes.)

8. Say thanks. As adults, we surely do not need reminders for the typical thank-you moments, such as receiving gifts or acts of kindness. But many of us may need reminders to go a little deeper. Once a week (or more often as you enjoy it more), think of someone who has had an effect on your life—big or small—and write that person a note of gratitude (not via e-mail either; be personal). Gratitude is one of the gifts you can give others that also has some selfish benefits: Some research shows that 15 minutes of daily gratitude can dramatically decrease stress hormones in your body. To practice, keep a gratitude bell in the house, and when one member of the family does something nice for another, ring the bell. It’s a great way to teach kids that helping others really matters.

9. Use spirituality as a tool. The real test of spirituality may be to apply it skillfully when you need it to solve real-life issues. That is, can you think before you act? Can you use things such as deep breathing, meditation, and prayer to help you be humble, compassionate, and empathetic when you are under high stress or when you have a family crisis? That ability is really at the heart of what transcendence is all about. It means doing things like counting to 10 before overreacting with emotion in an argument with a spouse or family member. It means slowing down the thought process so you are thinking through problems and conflicts and using your authentic being to address issues. It means asking yourself not what your spiritual leader of choice would do about a conflict, but what he or she would feel about this challenge. You want to tap into your heart more than control a behavior. And it means taking an issue one step further than its surface-level solution. For example, if a child is starting to get bad grades at school, find out what else is going on in the child’s life.

10. Find the joy in others. My wife, Nancy, and I recently took a trip to Barcelona. In two days we had explored nearly every nook and cranny of the city. We went by bus, by foot, by car—capturing more than 18,000 steps each day. (In addition to the exercise we did at a health club in San Francisco before we left.) My legs were tired, and so were Nancy’s. Still, she insisted we spend three hours at the Picasso museum, which required more walking and waiting in line for 30 minutes to get tickets. But seeing her joy as we entered the special exhibit—Picasso and Dali together—caused me great joy. And I know that it was that joy that knocked our responses to any stressful event to just about zero. 

Nancy thrilled to seeing so many drawings of the two greats juxtaposed. I relished her joy. The effect of those five happy hours lasted. Our conversations were harmonious for several days after, and we enjoyed the companionship and the elation of checking off a bucket-list item. It was just what was needed to help us manage otherwise stressful events, like our gate being moved 10 minutes before boarding time. Other data substantiate the effects of joy and friendship, indicating that having companions helps people respond to otherwise stressful events without stress and with beneficial productivity. 

Michael F. Roizen, MD is the chief wellness officer and chair at the Wellness Institute of the Cleveland Clinic. He is the author of RealAge and a coauthor of the You series of books, a corecipient of the 2011 Paul G. Rogers Health Communications Award from the National Library of Medicine, and a member of the Robb Report Health & Wellness editorial board.