Rock-a-bye Baby

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A Lullaby As Effective Stress Management

The repetitive soothing sounds and rhythm of the lullaby have been used for millennia as a natural tranquilizer. Globally, children are gently rocked, lullabies are hummed, nursery rhymes are recited, affectionate sounds are spoken in a lilting fashion—all with the intended purpose of inducing relaxation. Without formal training or explanation, human caregivers are acting out of an intuitive awareness of the soothing effects of such rhythmic activities on the children’s psychophysical state. It works. But what makes it work? What is the basic science behind lullabies and can it be put to use in inducing relaxation in adults?

The rhythmic component of the lullaby may be the most important factor in inducing calm, as its rhythmicity is the single common factor among the vastly different types of lullabies sung or spoken in hundreds of languages and dialects around the world. It is not coincidental that rhythmicity is also the key component of mantra meditation.

What Is Mantra Meditation?

There are two basic types of meditation: concentrative or non-concentrative. Concentrative meditation is based on limiting stimulation by focusing on a single unchanging or repetitive stimulus, such as a word mantra or a candle flame. Non-concentrative meditation techniques, e.g. mindfulness or yoga meditation, seek to expand awareness to include as much mental activity as possible. Of the two approaches, mantra meditation is the easiest to learn and use, the most natural technique, and one of the most effective forms of stress relief capable of producing lasting results.

Mantra meditation, much like a lullaby and acting on the same principle, can rapidly induce a deeply restful state. During mantra meditation, body and mind are beneficially affected. During 20–30 minutes of meditation, oxygen consumption is lowered to a level equivalent to that of 6–7 hours of sleep, and both heart and respiration rates generally show a significant decrease. Psychologically, mantra meditation appears to induce a fluid state of consciousness, with shared characteristics of sleep and wakefulness, and comes closest to the sleep-inducing state than any other meditation technique.

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Seeing Stress Anew Between Two Covers

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A fresh perspective on stress doesn’t come easy, given the explosion of self-help books and manuals on the subject that have been published in the last few years. Reading something truly illuminating and new about stress and how to manage it is a rare find. One of the few books that manages to be informative, practical and refreshingly new at the same time is Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness by Dr. Edward Charlesworth and Dr. Ronald Nathan, first published in 1982 and now in its fourth edition.

A pocket-sized 400+ pages little manual of treasures, the book includes chapters that explain stress in everyday language, teach relaxation in an engaging style, address the issue of special stressors, and puts it all together in a captivating and surprisingly simple stress management formula that is sure to be feasible by just about anyone. It earns the nod as Stresshacker Recommended book for this week.

[amtap book:isbn=0345468910]

PMR For Absolute Beginners

The Tao of Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

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The Science of PMR

Anxiety and stress-induced tension consists of subjective, behavioral, and physiological components that interact to create a complex physical and emotional experience. When a stressor is perceived, it can cause fear, anxiety or nervousness. The thoughts preceding or accompanying these sensations may add additional tension that further amplifies the stress reaction. This increases discomfort and physiological activation in a continuing spiral that may cause panic, negative thoughts, and a variety of other behavioral and physiological symptoms.

PMR is a way of reducing the arousal provoked by the stress reaction. When muscle activity is reduced with PMR, there is a corresponding reduction in nervous system activity. This is due to the negative feedback from the muscles to the brain (more specifically, the ascending reticular activation system and the hypothalamus). Resting muscles send little or no feedback information to the brain structures; the lack of feedback results in a decrease in autonomic activation. As muscle tension drops, heart rate and blood pressure are also lowered.

PMR is just one way of achieving a state of deep relaxation. There are many other ways to relax, some good (biofeedback, controlled breathing, autogenic training, stretch-based relaxation, and quiet meditation), and some not so good (alcohol, nicotine, drugs), all of which capitalize on the same psychophysiological mechanisms.

The advantages that PMR has over all other methods is that it is easy to learn, requires no equipment, and can be practiced any time and virtually anywhere.

The PMR Tensing-Relaxing Sequence

PMR is learning to tense and relax groups of muscles in your body, while at the same time learning the sensations that go with tension and relaxation. So, in addition to learning how to relax, you will also learn to recognize the sensations that go with tension and relaxation in everyday situations.

Learning relaxation skills is like learning any other skill, such as swimming or golfing or riding a bicycle. So, in order to get better at relaxing, you will need to practice doing it just as you would practice other skills. PMR simply involves learning the skill; there is nothing magical or mysterious about it. Let’s see how it works.

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Of Mel Gibson, Narcissus and Stress

mel-gibson-oksanaA sad pattern seems to be emerging: as Mel Gibson becomes distressed, some self-medication ensues, allegedly alcohol. The medication, instead of solving the problem, appears to merely loosen Mel’s inhibitions and he unleashes a now painfully public tirade laced with profanity, discrimination, and sexism. In many quarters, his behavior has been described as the epitome of narcissism. But is this really his problem? Let’s consider the story of Echo and Narcissus.

In the vicinity of Mt. Olympus, about 2,500 years ago, the sylvan nymph Echo fell in love with Narcissus. Narcissus was an uncommonly handsome and incredibly vain man who would live on beyond Greek mythology and become the eponym of self-centeredness. He rejected Echo’s love with such callousness and contempt that she died of a broken heart. Apollo, angered by Narcissus’ vanity and cruelty, cursed him to die without ever knowing human love. Not too long afterwards, as a thirsty Narcissus went to a pool of clear water and knelt beside it to drink, he saw his face reflected on the surface of the water and fell in love with it. Unable to reach the image in the water, Narcissus continued to stare at it forgetting everything else, and eventually died beside the pool.

From ancient tale to modern problem, the term narcissism today describes a mental disorder that is characterized by an excessive positive self-evaluation and near-total lack of consideration for others. As a personality type, a narcissist is prone to a grandiose evaluations of self, a constant preoccupation with success and power, an exaggerated sense of entitlement, and an exploitative approach to others. A narcissistic personality shows an enduring pattern of personal adjustment characterized by grandiosity, need for attention and admiration, and a lack of empathy. Individuals with this disorder believe that they are special and are excessively envious of others while being preoccupied with their own achievement and power.

Freud believed narcissism originated in childhood, making it particularly difficult to treat in adults. There is much controversy as to the core problem in narcissism. Some believe it may be primarily an emotional problem; others view it as a cognitive deficit, i.e. the narcissist’s inability to construct an accurate view of self. A third school of thought theorizes that a narcissist is cursed with an ‘‘empty’’ sense of self; yet another group argues that the narcissist may have a ‘‘disorganized’’ self.

The problem that originates all these theories as to the origin of narcissism is produced by the lack of accurate measurements of its impact and severity. Narcissistic people do not admit their problems when asked. When diagnosed, they are very reluctant to cooperate with the treating therapist. In fact, they are widely considered by clinicians as among the most intractable of mental health patients.

In the most recent large-scale research, Russ, Bradley, Shedler, and Westen (2006) have produced evidence that a clinical distinction may be made between grandiose narcissism, characterized by genuinely inflated views of self and a need-gratifying approach toward other people and relationships, and fragile narcissism, characterized by explicit grandiosity paired with feelings of inadequacy or self-loathing.

So where can we place Mr. Gibson along the continuum from normal self-evaluation to narcissism?  If there is narcissism in his personality, would it be the grandiose, or rather the fragile type? Without falling into the trap of long-distance diagnosis, a few comments can be made on his reported behavior. First, if there is self-medication with alcohol as has been reported, the something that is being medicated hurts, perhaps deeply, at the emotional level. Relationship problems, as they have been reported to exist, invariably cause emotional reactivity and chronic sympathetic arousal, i.e. chronic stress. The combination of stress and the disinhibiting effects of self-medication can produce a state of mind that exacerbates any feelings of entitlement, lack of empathy for others and an exploitative approach to problem-solving (a condition popularly known as an amygdala hijack).

It would seem that there is a match with Mr. Gibson’s recently broadcast telephone rants.

Stress, As Seen Through the Eye of Science

Bazille at Stresshacker.comWhen science looks at stress, the focus is on the body/mind interaction or, more precisely, on its psychophysiological mechanisms. Traveling back in time from our present condition to conception, we can see that our genes and the environment in which we grow up (in which our genes are expressed) determine how we respond to stress as adults. Our genetic and environmental differences (the nature or nurture of who we are) help explain how individuals exposed to the same stressful situation can have an entirely different reaction. Some can adapt successfully to the stressor (albeit not without discomfort), while others experience more severe immediate trauma and long-term emotional problems, such as PTSD.

During specific developmental periods, such as infancy, puberty, adolescence, adulthood, or maturity, certain stressors are almost certain to occur and are understood to be typical and appropriate to the process of maturation and change. The earliest such stressor is the effect of caregiving styles, which stems from the parents’ psychological state. An attentive and nurturing style produces vastly different effects on the child’s later adaptation to stress than a harsh, unforgiving or neglectful one. In adolescence, patterns of behavior and emotional reactivity—including the stress reaction—begin to crystallize and become fully set in early adulthood.

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What Would You Do?

777 Cockpit at Stresshacker.comThe airliner, heavy with fuel and filled with passengers, is climbing toward its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, having taken off less than twenty minutes earlier and more than one hour behind schedule. The captain and the second officer are completing their post-takeoff routines and anticipating a smooth ride; the weather forecast is for clear skies ahead and relatively little turbulence. The steady muffled roar of the four jet engines envelops the aircraft.

In the cockpit, a large amber light begins flashing on the upper center quadrant of the dashboard. After a few seconds, the light goes off. An automatic correction has taken place, initiated by the onboard navigation computers. Other lights flash briefly and then go off. To the uninitiated eye, seemingly at random.

Suddenly a bright red warning light flashes in the section of the dashboard that groups all engine functions. The cockpit crew appears to pay scant attention to it. The red flashing continues. If you were the pilot of the aircraft, what would you do?

  1. Put a dark cloth over the light. Too much flashing can be distracting and one simply cannot chase after every light. Get busy doing flight path calculations.
  2. Relax. Take a break and go get some coffee from the galley with the copilot. The light may be off by the time you all come back to the cockpit.
  3. Ignore the light. Look at some other part of the dashboard where there are no lights. A lot of lights come and go. It will probably shut itself off, eventually.
  4. Respond to the message that the light is giving. Check engine functions and take the appropriate steps to address the problem.

If you answered 1, 2 or 3, your stress level is probably very high. If you answered 1, your preferred mode of dealing with high stress is by covering it up. If you answered 2, your strategy consists of using various relaxation techniques hoping that stress will take care of itself somehow, without addressing its cause. If you answered 3, your favorite approach consists of denying the existence of high stress, preferring instead to believe that there are plenty of times when you are really not stressed at all.

If you answered 4, you understand that the amber and red lights (representing mild or severe stress reactions) are occurring as an indication that something of importance (a significant stressor) requires your immediate attention. By acknowledging the valuable message that the stress reaction (the cockpit light) is giving you, you begin to address its cause, the stressor (the engine problem). This is the essence of effective stress management: managing the cause of the stress, instead of simply mitigating (or covering up, or denying) the symptoms.

How do you react to the warning signs of stress? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. Check out Stresshacker’s StressWise program: stress coaching, online webinars, and downloads for making sense of stress, and for better stress and stressor management.

Do You Know the Answer to These 10 Critical Questions About Stress?

vanGogh_1888_YellowHouseWhat questions come to mind when we think about stress depends on our relationship with it. If we consider stress as our mortal enemy, then our questions will revolve around the fear of its effects, ways of getting rid of it or at least greatly reducing it, and how we can best distract our mind and tame our symptoms. If, on the other hand, we consider stress as our ally, a friend that warns us when something or someone requires our attention by turning on certain body signals, then our questions will be entirely different. They will revolve around ways of using it to our advantage, toward understanding its precious and vital function, and how best to accept and honor its purpose. Here are the 10 most important questions about stress.

10 Questions About Stress

  1. Is stress always bad?
    No, not always. However stress can be bad, even dangerously bad. It starts out in childhood, as we become aware of the world and its dangers. If it is misunderstood, not explained, ignored or abused, stress can grow with us into something to be feared, avoided, to run from. It can become a constant yet unwanted companion, albeit a greatly misunderstood one. A relationship with stress is thus set up that is entirely adversarial. Its power as a warning system and as a motivator is overlooked. Stress is always bad when, in this way, it becomes a disease.
  2. What is the prevalence of stress in humans?
    It is 100%. Every man, woman and child who ever lived, now lives or will ever live experiences stress. This is not because we are cursed with it, but because we are blessed by its helpful action. In the presence of any stressor, real, imagined or impending, our body instinctively mobilizes for action, helping us better protect and defend ourselves, our loved ones, our property and our values. Without it, we would be inert, uncaring, detached and defenseless individuals.
  3. What are the variations and severity of stress?
    There are two kinds of stress: the stress reaction and chronic stress. The stress reaction is the immediate arousal that occurs in the presence of danger; it rises rapidly, peaks, and subsides after a time; afterwards, the mind and body return to their normal relaxed state. The stress reaction can be more or less intense, and more or less prolonged, depending on the severity of the stressor and on its resolution. Chronic stress is simply a persistence of the stress reaction, which continues at or near its peak without return to the normal relaxed state. The severity of chronic stress depends on the stressor that first triggered it and the continuing stressors that maintain it, and on the lack of any real resolution. Chronic stress is what most people refer to when they complain of suffering from stress.

    A day without stress is like, you know, night. –Anonymous

  4. Can chronic stress be prevented?
    Yes, stress can be prevented from becoming chronic, especially in children and young adults. Adults and elderly people have a more difficult time preventing stress from becoming chronic. What is most helpful in prevention is understanding its function and learning to appreciate its value. People who do best are the ones who view a stress-free life not only as the absence of symptoms, but as one that is rich in exercise, balanced nutrition, effective time management, good decision-making skills, appropriate releases of energy and emotion, and strong relationships.
  5. What are the most common stress triggers?
    The most frequent and severe stressors, or stress triggers, are associated with our interpersonal relationships (beginnings, ongoing difficulties, losses) and our physical health. Others that can be very severe but less common are natural disasters, accidents, conflict, or crime. In general, change is a stressor, as are most transitions from one phase of life or age to the next. Work and financial demands are also frequently associated with stress reactions.
  6. Are there ways for parents to reduce the risk of their children developing chronic stress? 
    Yes, through educating themselves about the function, benefits and dangers of stress, and passing this knowledge along to their children. There is no better time to learn about how to accept and make the best use of the stress reaction than in childhood and young adolescence, although it can be learned at any age.
  7. What are the risks associated with stress? 
    The risks associated with stress are minimal if the stress reaction is allowed to occur and take its normal course, and if stressors are addressed and resolved in a timely manner. Chronic stress, however, carries biological, psychological and social consequences. It can result in severe illness, especially to the cardiovascular and immune systems. It can significantly worsen the prognosis of psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and many others. Lastly, chronic stress can have a significantly adverse impact on relationships, at work and at home, by augmenting the effects of anger, fatigue, or irritability. It can also diminish productivity and lead to poor decision-making.
  8. Can stress be cured? 
    No, the stress reaction cannot be cured because stress itself is not a disease. Stress is a natural and helpful reaction to a danger that mobilizes our defenses. It is impossible to “cure” stress if it means attempting to eliminate it; it would be tantamount to trying to eliminate fear, or joy, or surprise from our lives. On the other hand, chronic stress must be addressed and treated adequately to avoid its most serious consequences to our health, our mind, and our relationships.
  9. What questions should I ask my physician about stress?
    The two most important questions to ask are 1) How seriously has chronic stress affected my physical health (heart, blood pressure, cholesterol, and digestive system being the most vulnerable), and 2) What changes do I need to make to reduce my chronic stress back to a normal stress reaction.
  10. What can I do to reduce my risk of chronic stress?
    There are many different stress management programs available, perhaps even too many to consider them all. Often, lack of success with them prevents their continued application. Often lack of time or motivation are the problem. Often, acute stress itself prevents us from being able to choose an adequate treatment. In many cases, it is advisable to get some external help that facilitates the process. In those cases, a good coach is the ingredient that makes it possible to discover, develop and make the best use of our natural ability to manage stress.

How Severe Is Stress in America?

Battistero at Stresshacker.comAccording to the latest APA (American Psychological Association) survey, nearly half (42 percent) of Americans are reporting that their stress has increased, as compared to the previous year’s survey. Half of Americans say that they are increasingly stressed about their ability to provide for their family’s basic needs. Eight out of 10 say that the economy is a significant cause of stress. Women are most likely to report stress related to the current economic climate.

Frequent Symptoms

More than half of all adults report that they lay awake at night because of stress. More people report fatigue (53 percent), feelings of irritability or anger (60 percent) and lying awake at night (52 percent) as a result of stress, in addition to other symptoms including lack of interest or motivation, feeling depressed or sad, headaches and muscular tension. Other reported symptoms include changes in appetite, stomach aches, intestinal problems, nervousness, and excessive worry.

The Doctor Knows

Two-thirds (66 percent) of adults living in the U.S. have been told by a health care provider that they have one or more chronic conditions, most commonly high blood pressure or high cholesterol. The vast majority of adults indicated that a health care provider recommended lifestyle and behavior changes (70 percent).

Treatment … of Sorts

Almost one-fifth of Americans report drinking alcohol to manage their stress (18 percent), and 16 percent report smoking. Many people rely on sedentary activities to manage their stress. Forty-three percent say they eat too much or eat unhealthy foods because of stress. A third (33 percent) cited their own lack of willpower as the reason they were unsuccessful, in addition to not having enough time (20 percent) and lack of confidence (14 percent). 14 percent of adults report they are too stressed to make any changes at all.

What is Your Biggest Stressor?

What worries you the most right now? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. Check out Stresshacker’s StressWise program for tips and coaching, online webinars, and downloads for making sense of stress.

Economic Distress and Its 8 Remedies

Capretti at Stresshacker.comEconomic stress is the unpleasant reality for many in the United States and in many other countries today. There is plenty of anxiety to go around for everybody. The unemployed worry about not being able to find another job; the employed fear losing their job; business owners lament stagnating or falling sales; entrepreneurs are holding back investments for fear of insufficient returns; politicians squabble and scramble in search of solutions while worrying about the economy’s effect on their reelection prospects.

A Bad Situation Made Worse by Diminishing Options

In each of these situations, the effects of persistent stress are taking their usual and heavy toll on sleep, eating, temper, morale, relationships and health. Depending on factors that may date back to childhood or be related to one’s personality traits, lifestyle choices or physical condition, some individuals are better able to cope with stress than others. In this situation, the use and abuse of alcohol, nicotine, drugs, sex, video games, and other less than desirable “remedies” is on the rise. Some of the manifestations of stress that have a negative impact on others, such as domestic violence, interpersonal conflict, anger and bullying are also more prevalent.

One aspect of economic distress that bears closer analysis is decision-making. In times of diminishing resources—due to job or investment loss, or lack of opportunities—the range of available choices tends to diminish drastically. The choice of where to go on vacation is narrowed to whether to go at all; the option of when and where to invest one’s assets is shifted to how to best preserve their value; the freedom to choose how to spend one’s money is curtailed to spending only on necessities; the choices of how best to further one’s career is simplified down to the need to hold on to the job. There is a domino effect that compounds the impact of these decisions (or non-decisions as the case may be) because, for example, when we choose not to spend we narrow the choices available to business owners by diminishing their income. If the statistics are to be believed, almost two-thirds of the US economy depends on consumer spending for most of its growth potential. When we stop spending because we are stressed about our income (or lack thereof), we may inadvertently help propagate the stress well beyond our immediate confines and onto the whole of the national economy.

What We Can Do to Reduce Economic Stress

While the choices available to us today cannot include a continuation of the spending patterns of the boom years, there is an argument to be made in favor of maintaining a level of spending that reflects a reasonable balance between living beyond our means and living on pork and beans. Here are a few suggestions on how to deal with economic stress in a balanced and reasonable way.

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Children Are Dangerously Stressed and Their Parents Are…Out to Lunch

One nation, under stress, with sleeplessness and anxiety for all.

US_Flag_Flying_1A nationwide survey about stress has revealed a worrisome disconnect between what parents believe causes stress in their children, or that their children have any stress at all, and what the children themselves consider seriously stressful. Here are some of the most disconcerting findings.

  • Stress and worry about their family’s financial difficulties are having a significant impact on young people, and their parents either don’t know it or don’t believe it.
  • Children are more likely to have experienced difficulty sleeping in the past month than their parents know about.
  • Fewer parents than children believe that children’s stress has increased in the past year.
  • Parents appear to be unaware of the degree to which children report physical symptoms like headaches that are often associated with stress.
  • Children are four times more likely to report having eaten too much or too little in the past month than their parents noticed.

The recent survey, Stress in America by the American Psychological Association, reveals that American children are not getting the attention or the support they need to identify and understand stress or to learn healthy strategies for managing its effects.

The full executive summary of the survey is available from the APA here. It is not an easy or comfortable read.  Over 40% of Americans report that their stress has increased in the last year. The same percentage report that they lay awake at night because of stress. And the same percentage again say they eat too much or eat unhealthy foods because of stress.

When the Doctor Herself Is Stressed


“I could easily blame stress for the many emotional and physical symptoms I experienced from early childhood. Free floating anxiety, feeling unworthy and undeserving of love and happiness, feeling hypersensitive and yet numb to many of my emotions and constantly judging, criticizing and berating myself were just some of the unhealthy defense mechanisms I had learned over the years to cope with stress.”

Thus begins Dr. Lori Leyden-Rubenstein’s compact (a little over 200 pages), concise (13 short chapters) yet comprehensive and insightful book, The Stress Management Handbook: Strategies for Health and Inner Peace.

[amtap book:isbn=0879837942]

Throughout the book, Dr. Leyden-Rubenstein never loses track of her own experiences and refers to them often but judiciously, which creates the right feeling of connection without narrowing her suggestions solely to her own experience. After telling her story, she explains what stress is and how to manage it, including its effects on the body and mental health, all in precise yet easy to understand language. She then offers no fewer than 35 strategies for relieving stress, ranging from physical to psychological, and from concrete to spiritual.

Another great book worth having and definitely worth reading and practicing. It gets this week’s Stresshacker Recommended badge.

Stress That Can Save Your Life

TableMountain_EN-US2081400154Can the body’s natural response to stress be harnessed to combat heart failure? The results of a study published online in the June issue of the journal Circulation Research appear to support this hypothesis. Scientists from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that two experimental drugs have the potential to restore pumping strength to failing hearts in part by harnessing the fight-or-flight response that makes the heart beat stronger. At the center of this finding is the excitatory hormone adrenalin, which normally maintains the heart’s pumping strength and stimulates the heart to beat with greater force during a stress crisis. The newly identified drugs ensure that adrenalin’s ability to increase heartbeat strength is maintained, and not thwarted, as it is typical in heart failure patients.