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UCLA

Don't Stress; Live a Little

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By Dan Gordon '85

Published Jan 1, 2014 8:00 AM


Stress is inevitable in our nonstop world. But there's much more you can do to relieve or reduce the effects of stress in your life than just work out or chill out. And some of them may surprise you.

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Illustration by Juliette Borda

Demanding careers… relationship problems… financial struggles … family strife, not to mention the hour you just spent stuck in traffic — to be sure, life can be stressful. But with evidence continuing to mount that carrying all of that mental anguish can wreak havoc with our bodies, our ability to manage, reduce and let go of stress can be critical not only to our mental well-being, but also to our physical health.

Dr. Michael Irwin, director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center in the Norman Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA (which Irwin also heads), points to several associations between stress and poor health outcomes. One is mortality: Stress accelerates the genetic changes associated with aging, leading to greater likelihood of an earlier demise. A host of chronic diseases have been strongly linked with stress and depression, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and certain kinds of cancers.

While knowing about the perils of stress on the body might not seem helpful if your life already feels overwhelming, Irwin offers this good news: We have a lot more control over our stress levels than most of us realize. “Obviously, we can’t control external events,” he says. “But what’s important is how we respond to those events. There are strategies that can be incredibly effective at reducing perceptions of stress, improving mental well-being and buffering the body against the effects of those external stressors.”

Irwin offers these tips for living a (relatively) stress-free life:

Take Care of Yourself

Not only does stress wear down the body; all too often it also leads us to forgo healthy practices and make decisions that exacerbate these physical effects. “People will say they don’t have time to exercise, even though that’s exactly what they need,” says Irwin. “They become sleep-deprived, and that drives them to seek high-carbohydrate, high-fat, high-salt foods. When we’re under stress, we tend to curtail the healthy behaviors needed to promote well-being — eating well, exercising daily and maintaining a regular sleep/wake cycle.”

Stay Social

The instinct for many during stress is to withdraw, when what we need is just the opposite. “People will say, ‘I’ll handle it on my own; I don’t have time for my friends now,’ ” Irwin says. “But humans are social beings — and, in fact, social isolation is a predictor of mortality risk.” There is a caveat: Make sure you’re around the right people. If there are individuals in your life who tend to heighten your stress level, keep your distance.

Get Away

In an age in which we’re connected 24/7 to work, family and friends, it’s easy to take on too much — and difficult to unplug. “Vacations are very much necessary for promoting cardiovascular health,” Irwin says. “But vacations are different when we are constantly checking our devices.” It comes down to time management: Find the right balance between work and play, and force yourself to put aside your device when it’s distracting you from the getaway you need.

Live in the Moment

On Your Mind

The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center at www.marc.ucla.edu offers info on online and in-person classes, including free drop-in sessions.

With so much on our plates and the constant pinging of texts, emails, phone calls and social media vying for our attention, we multitask. Not only is it inefficient, but multitasking also has been shown to activate many of the stress responses, Irwin says. He emphasizes the importance of maintaining a focus on the task at hand and staying in the moment, rather than constantly thinking about everything that has to be done.

“One of the things we teach people is to take a little time throughout the day to stop and take a deep breath, being aware of what’s happening in their bodies and around them,” he says. “It can be five minutes or even 30 seconds, but that short amount of time helps the body return to the homeostatic low level.”

Practice Mindfulness

Research has shown that mindfulness approaches such as yoga, tai chi and meditation — particularly mindful awareness — reduce anxiety and symptoms of depression, improve sleep and decrease inflammation.

“Each of these practices is about becoming focused and aware, which produces a relaxation response,” Irwin says. “That’s what we think is leading to a reversal of some of the biological processes that become activated at times of stress.” Most striking, Irwin says, are findings that older adults with limited aerobic activity levels show more robust decreases in inflammation — a key predictor of many chronic diseases — from these practices. Researchers also believe that by fostering a sense of purpose and connection to those around us, mindfulness approaches provide a buffer against the stress experience.

Let It Go

Part of reducing stress is accepting what you can’t change. If you've lost someone important to you, the grieving process must include that acceptance, Irwin says. Here, too, the mindfulness approach can help by teaching how to be aware of thoughts and feelings and allowing them to pass. “Most thoughts and feelings are transient,” Irwin says. “People who hold onto them, spending a lot of time ruminating about problems, will experience stress for longer periods of time and increase their risk of developing depression.”

Knowledge is Power

Irwin points out that simply understanding that you have control over your stress is a stress-reducer. “There is a lot of evidence demonstrating that people who believe they have control over their lives are happier and feel less stressed,” he says. “The reality is that there’s little we can do to control what goes on around us. But we are in control of our perceptions of those events, and how we respond to them affects how well we maintain our equilibrium and well-being over time.”

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