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More how-to guides for life
Sunday, August 11, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific
How to's for life
A monthly guide

HOW TO
DESTRESS ON THE RUN

By Tyrone Beason,
Seattle Times staff reporter

Photo
ELLEN M. BANNER
THE SEATTLE TIMES
Relax on the run? Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron. But even setting aside five minutes for quality downtime in a day filled with traffic snarls, meetings, deadlines and the myriad demands of home can work wonders for the stressed-out body and soul.

As Bastyr University stress expert Naomi Lester puts it, people go into "fight or flight" mode when they get stressed. Forehead muscles tighten, shoulders cramp, moods swing, blood pressure goes haywire, lunch just sits there, then goes straight for your waistline. It's all tied to the body's wacky emergency-response system, which directs lots of energy and chemicals to the areas of the body that might be needed in high-intensity situations. All that buildup, but no release. That's the essence of stress.

"A lot of people think that stress just makes you feel bad, but it can also have significant effects on your body and your well-being," Lester said. "The reason to do stress management is not to just make you feel better, but to protect your health."

So here's how to quickly bring back a little personal balance and inner calm as you try to rein in the world.

NAOMI LESTER
Naomi Lester, Stress-management expert
MEDITATION
MADE SIMPLE


Pick a good time, morning or evening, and move into a position that's truly comfortable for you. Close your eyes, if that's possible. Start to breathe in and out in a measured, deliberate pace. Breathe in, count "one." Breathe out, count "two." Keep going. Dozens of images, noises and thoughts will pass through your head, but don't worry about them. Accept them as normal distractions. If a thought comes, "lasso it and put it over on the side for now," Lester says.

Try to feel the air moving into and out of the lungs. Meditate for five minutes after lunch. Do it in the carpool (if you're not the driver) on the way to work. Or try it before dinner.
PUT YOUR BEST FACE FORWARD
Pressure makes people frown, cringe and scowl, all of which strain the muscles of the face and head. Tooth-grinding and headaches may result.

TRY THIS
Tense your face (Think: Very angry 2-year-old), then release. Repeat several times. This technique works with individual parts of the face — such as jaw and forehead muscles.

SHOULDER IT
Pay attention to your shoulders. If you're stressed, they're probably raised slightly, which may increase neck and back tension.

TRY THIS
Hunch the shoulders for a few seconds (but don't strain too heavily), then relax them, letting the muscles ease into a more comfortable position. Repeat. Do the same squeeze-release exercise with the neck, legs, feet, etc.

FEEL THE HEAT
Stress forces blood to the center the of body, leaving limbs feeling colder and lighter in weight than usual.

TRY THIS
Imagine that your arms and legs are gradually warming up. Focus on that sensation. Then imagine yourself growing heavier and heavier. The feeling of warm relaxation may even out blood flow through the body.

VISUALIZE WORLD PEACE
Important meeting coming up? Traffic jam on the way home? Stress causes the mind to wander in a million different places, most of them not pleasant. It's easy to lose focus on what's important at times like this.

SHARON SALZBERG
Sharon Salzberg, Buddhist meditation expert
TRANQUILITY
IN MOTION


The steps for a "walking meditation" are similar to the sit-down version, except that Salzberg recommends paying attention to the act of walking: Feel each step touching the ground as you go. That rhythm creates a repetitive sensation that aids deep relaxation. Walking also opens the senses, she said, making it easier to appreciate relaxing sounds in nature, the feel of wind against the skin etc.

Meditation is a good way to learn how to focus on the present rather than feel anxious about the future. Whether breathing during meditation or other activities, Salzberg recommends listening to and feeling each breath, without regard for the next one. While it's unrealistic to notice every breath, the practice gets easier with time.
TRY THIS
Pick an image or sound — sailboats on Lake Union, a family photo or the sound of birds chirping — and focus intensely on it and nothing else for a few minutes. (Do this only when it's safe). Soothing distractions can help clear the mind and, oddly enough, restore calm focus on the mission at hand. CDs and cassettes with recorded relaxation messages, available at many book and music stores, can help.

KEEP YOUR FEET ON THE MOVE
People tend to sit around and brood — or pace — when stressed. Aside from being a waste of energy, neither activity reduces stress.

TRY THIS
Take a walk somewhere away from the environment that has left you stressed. Strolling helps you visualize more pleasant thoughts, it uses energy in a good way, and it gives you a healthy physical distance from problems, which may help you reflect more clearly.

SKIP DESSERT
Many people console themselves with lots of food when feeling anxious and stressed. The problem is the body's metabolism tends to slow down at times like this. Eating for comfort promotes digestive problems, fat storage and weight gain.

TRY THIS
Exercise or talk to someone instead. Eat nutritious foods.

RESOURCES
To learn more about coping with stress, Bastyr University's Naomi Lester recommends:

"Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" (W.H. Freeman and Co., $16), by Robert Sapolsky, explores the science of human stress and how to deal with it.

"Managing Stress," Third Ed., (Jones and Bartlett, $58.95), by Brian Luke Seaward, comes with an enhanced CD-ROM featuring relaxation exercises.

Sources:

Naomi Lester, Bastyr University; "Comprehensive Stress Management," Sixth Ed. (McGraw-Hill), by Jerrold S. Greenberg; Sharon Salzberg, author.


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