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6 Tips to Manage Stress

By Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH

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Personally, I love the idea of integrative medicine. To me, integrative medicine means doing what I've always done in my practice: Treating the whole patient. That's why I work with my patients to make lifestyle changes like optimizing diet and exercise to lower their cholesterol levels and high blood pressure before turning to pills.

It's also why I question women about the stress in their lives when they come to see me for things like headaches, back pain, constipation and other digestive problems, insomnia and fatigue. And it's why I take the time to show them that it's often not the stress itself that's making them sick, but how they manage it. Rather than writing a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication or a sleeping pill, I propose some of my favorite alternative methods of managing and relieving stress:

  1. Sip on herbal tea. The use of teas and tinctures to treat health conditions dates back thousands of years. I recommend calming teas like valerian or chamomile. Brew the tea, sit in a quiet, cozy spot, and just sip as you listen to the silence and feel your body unknot.
  2. Practice deep breathing. You probably don't worry much about how you're breathing (as long as you're still breathing!), but too many women (and men) are shallow breathers. We don't take the kind of deep, diaphragmatic breaths needed to trigger the relaxation response. So the next time you feel your shoulders tightening and your stomach clenching, stop whatever you're doing and just take a few slow, deep breaths.
  3. Get a pet. Numerous studies find that playing, snuggling, even petting a dog or cat reduces levels of anxiety. Bet you never thought of your golden retriever as an alternative therapy before!
  4. Listen to some soft music. There's a reason they play New Age music in spas: the soothing sounds of water falling or a gently strummed guitar enables relaxation. If you're not into New Age, how about classical? In one study of 143 women undergoing breast biopsies, women who listened to classical music during the procedure reduced their levels of anxiety as much as women who took a prescription antianxiety medication. Another study found that music therapy reduced anxiety and improved sleep in a group of women at a domestic abuse shelter.
  5. Relax your muscles—one at a time. This is called progressive muscle relaxation. Start at your toes and tense and relax each muscle, systematically moving up your body. Many studies show this simple relaxation works wonders in reducing anxiety and stress hormones. One even found that women with breast cancer who practiced progressive muscle relaxation were significantly less anxious, depressed and hostile than women who didn't and had considerably less nausea and vomiting both before and after their chemotherapy.
  6. Meditate. Meditation is not about chanting; it is about being in the moment, which is much more difficult to do than it sounds. Or, as one author put it, "The art of being serene and alert in the present moment, instead of constantly struggling to change or to become." I recommend you take a class or join a meditation group to learn, and then practice, practice, practice. And remember the cornerstones of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and using it successfully:
  • CAM acknowledges the psychological, environmental and social contributions to disease.
  • CAM actively involves the patient in the treatment process.
  • CAM emphasizes preventive medicine, alternative therapies and a lifestyle that lessens the risks for developing disease.
  • Don't forget, CAM takes time to work, often more time than pharmaceutical remedies. Don't get impatient and exceed recommended treatments or dosages.
  • And, most important, talk to your health care professional about any alternative treatments.