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Well being is something we all desire. But staying healthy and feeling good can be quite a challenge, especially with the stresses that pervade every aspect of our lives today.
Everyone is aware that regular exercise and eating healthily are two essential steps to well being.
In this series, you'll learn about a third step, relaxation. Not just sitting around but some specific activities that trigger your body's relaxation response. You'll learn about the importance of deep relaxation for reducing the harmful effects of stress, along with a series of easy to do relaxation skills.
And through our weekly questionnaire, you'll gain an awareness of how stress may be affecting you.
So get a paper and pencil ready and join us as we take the next step to well being.
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Few of us are aware of how stress erodes our sense of well being. In this program, you'll find out what causes stress. This week's questionnaire will help you recognize how stress is affecting you and we'll show you what you can do about it.
Eli Bay, Director of the Relaxation Response Institute in Toronto is a pioneer in the teaching of relaxation skills for stress management.
Eli: Stress is not all bad. In fact, we need a certain amount of stress to get out of bed in the morning. Without stress, we wouldn't be alive. Stress is the fuel that gets things done. It motivates us to live and to work in the world efficiently.
Too much stress, however, excessive stress becomes a problem. And it really affects every aspect of our life including our health right through to our relationships.
The term stress was first coined by the late Dr. Hans Selye from the University of Montreal. And Selye analyzed 1000s of research studies that sort of looked at how the body reacts to injury, to excessive stimulation, to unusual work demands. And he discovered that our bodies react to all of these different demands in much the same way. Like most animals, humans have a built-in stress alarm system called a fight or flight reaction. And its purpose is to help us to react quickly to life threatening events. It's automatic. It mobilizes our body to protect itself by fighting or running away from the threat.
In either case, your blood pressure rises, your heart beat speeds up, your muscles contract. It's a whole arousal state. And when this arousal state is turned on, that medically is what stress is.
Deepak: So what does this stress response have to do with our daily lives? How often do we face life threatening situations where we have to take flight or fight for our lives.
Dr. Posen: Well it's an interesting thing because I've actually heard the phrase that the stress response is dumb. You get the same reaction no matter what the trigger or stimulus.
So it's like a computer switch, it's either on or its off. And the body in a sense only has one way of responding. It can be a severe reaction or a mild one. But the reaction is the same every time.
The interesting thing is, when we know that anything that is life threatening, this physical danger, will result in a stress reaction. But the same thing happens when you feel your self esteem to be threatened. So if somebody yells at you or criticizes you or if you have an argument, and you start to feel not good about yourself or insecure with that person, that threat to your self esteem or identity will actually for some people be as threatening as if it were life threatening in a physical way.
And then the other thing is, when people have an on-going stress reaction, whether it's -- and most things aren't life threatening -- your body is in a state of arousal, ready to fight or run away from danger. In most cases, fighting and running away are not appropriate responses.
So what happens is the stress response, the state of arousal continues. And if it goes on for minutes or hours, it can result in actually physical or psychological symptoms. It's almost like if a muscle is tense long enough, it will become sore and stiff. And that's what happens throughout the body in a stress reaction, but not only to the muscles, but in terms of internal organs and digestive upsets and so on.
Deepak: Many of us are so bombarded by stressful situations that by the end of the day, our bodies are reacting as if we had just been through a life threatening situation. Even though our brains know that our lives are not literally in danger, our bodies apparently don't.
But why does this stress continue to build up? If the body is smart enough to turn the fight or flight response on, isn't it smart enough to turn it off at the end of a stressful day?
Eli: We would almost be better off if the stressful events were life threatening. If the source of stress is identifiable, then it's obvious when the danger has passed and the body can naturally relax.
Our problem in this technological age is that stress comes from many sources. The source of our stress is so undefined, so ambiguous, so prolonged, that our bodies never know when its over. So our stress mechanisms don't turn off.
As a result, most of us are in a state of chronic stress and we are not even aware of it.
Sheila: About 6 months ago if you had told me that I was stressed, I wouldn't even had known it. I would've said, "No that's just me. That's the way that I respond to things."
But now I can actually feel the difference. I know when my body is relaxed. I know when my mind is relaxed and I know when it's not.
Dr. Posen: Raising people's awareness and consciousness of how stress shows up for them has several important benefits. First of all, they become aware of their stress where often they weren't. In other cases, it helps them monitor their stress. Because once you know how it is showing up for you, you can know when it is getting better or worse if you know what to watch for.
But another thing that is very interesting that blocks people from dealing with stress is the problem of denial. A lot of people find it very difficult to admit when they are experiencing stress, and they just won't admit it, they will deny it. And it's the sub-conscious process. And to get through that barrier, having people actually look at check-lists, sometimes brings to their awareness things that are impossible for them to ignore. If they said yes to 14 questions, then it's pretty hard to say, "But I don't have stress."
Eli: Actually the very best way to determine how well you are dealing with stress is to listen to your own body. But that's a fairly sophisticated awareness that takes some time to develop.
There are other ways. There are in fact research scientists over the past several decades that have been exploring and trying to figure out ways to help us develop understanding about the stress in our own lives. And over these 8 programs, we are going to be looking at a number of different stress tests or questionnaires or evaluations, and you'll have an opportunity to test yourself and see how well you are dealing with stress.
Each test will spotlight a different aspect of stress.
Deepak: Ahh, so we'll be able to evaluate ourselves?
Eli: Yes, that's the objective -- to be able to get an understanding, a self-evaluation of various aspects of stresses in your life.
In today's test, it's a test that's going to look at just life change and not looking at the macro changes, the changes in the culture of the technology. But just life changes, day to day things that we all experience in various times in our life.
Drs. Holmes and Rahe, a couple of medical researchers at the University of Washington Medical School developed this test roughly 25 years ago. And they've tested it on 10,000's of people. And they found it to be an extremely accurate predictor of illness. That the more change that one has in a short period of time, the higher the statistical probability that one will develop an illness as a result of those changes.
Deepak: So by taking this test, we're going to find out whether or not we'll get sick?
Eli: Well, no. We are going to look at statistical probabilities. The more change, the higher the probability.
Trend is not destiny. It's not a question of you becoming ill as a result of this test. Although it's an indicator and certainly one should be aware that if you score highly on this test, there is really a high probability of becoming ill.
We'll talk about that once we've done the scoring.
Deepak: OK, so let's take the test. Can you tell us how it works?
Eli: Yes, you are going to be presented with a list of life events that have been weighted according to the amount of adjustment or change that is required to deal with that event.
For example, if your spouse died within the last 12 months, you would get 100 change units. The researchers have discovered that universally, cross culturally, that the death of a spouse is the most stressful event.
In fact, researchers have discovered that from up to two years after a spouse dies, the surviving spouse's immune system is about half the strength of what it should be.
So if your spouse died, write down 100 on the piece of paper. If your spouse didn't die, then you don't write anything down.
If you had a close family member that died within the last 12 months, you get 63 change points. If you had two close family members that had died, you'd get 63 * 2.
Deepak: It sounds like we are going to be adding these numbers up.
Eli: Yes, so as each event occurs for you, write down the number so that you can total it up at the end. And don't worry if you don't have a pencil and paper handy. Just pay attention to the event so that you get a sense of the life changes that have occurred in your life in the last year, to give you some sense of the kind of stresses that you are experiencing. Some of which may come as a real surprise to you.
Also, this test is contained in the home study package, so you can refer to that in more detail.
The first question, death of a spouse. If your spouse died within the last 12 months, give yourself 100 change points. Write it down.
If you had a close family member that passed away within the past 12 months, give yourself 63 change points.
If you had a friend that died within the last year, 37 change points.
Now, let's look at change in marital status. If you were divorced within the last year, 73 change points -- it's a major, stressful event.
If you were separated within the last year, 65 change points.
If you were married within the last year, you get 50 change points.
Now marriage seems an anomaly here. You can certainly recognize the other events as being stressful. Marriage is perceived as a positive, at least in the beginning. And yet marriage here is rated as an extremely stressful event because of change.
Again, if you understand nothing else but the equation change equals stress, you'll go a long way towards understanding both the nature and the problem of stress in our time.
So even a positive event like getting married can be an extremely stressful event.
If you had a marital reconciliation in the last year, give yourself 45 change units.
If you had sexual difficulties, 39 change units.
The next category is the change in family relationships. If you were pregnant within the last year, you get 40 change units.
If you gained a new family member in the last year, 39 change units.
Deepak: Eli, I've got a problem with this one. Because my daughter is 12.5 months old and I'm not sure whether to count this one or not.
Eli: Well Deepak, that's a very good question and the answer I'm going to give you applies to all of the questions. We aren't talking hard and defined lines, it's roughly. You are looking at the amount of adaptations that have occurred in roughly the last year. So you can apply that to all of these.
Deepak: So she is in!
Eli: She's in.
So the next one, son or daughter leaves home -- 29 change units.
If you've had trouble with your in-laws in the last year, 29 change points.
If you've had a change in the number of arguments with your spouse, that could be fewer arguments as well as more, 35 chance points.
Here is another area, encounter with the legal system. If you had a jail term within the last year, you get 63 change units.
If you had a minor violation of the law such as as speeding ticket, you get 11 change points. If you had 5 speeding tickets, let me remind you, it's 11 times 5.
If you had a personal injury or illness in the last year, 53 change units. If you had a change in the health of a family member in the last year, 44 change units.
Now there is another area here, change in work situation. If you were fired from your job in the last 12 months, give yourself 47 change units. If you had a business readjustment, say you had to lay staff off, 39 change units.
If you changed to a different line of work, 36 change units.
If you had a change in your responsibilities at work, 29 change units -- for example if you were promoted.
If you have trouble with your boss, 23 change units.
If you had to change the number of work hours or conditions, even if you work less, 20 change units.
If you retired within the last year, 45 change units.
The next area is major financial changes. If you are carrying a large mortgage, we're looking at 38 change units.
If you had a mortgage greater than 1 years income, then give yourself 31 change points.
If you had a foreclosure of a mortgage, 30 change points.
If your spouse began or stopped work in the last year, give yourself 26 change points.
If you are carrying a small mortgage or a loan, 17 change points.
Another area -- change in routines. If you had a change in living conditions in the last year, 25 change points.
If you changed your personal habits, say you stopped smoking, give yourself 24 change points.
If you had a change in residence, if you moved, 20 change points.
If you changed your school, also 20 change points.
If you had an outstanding personal achievement, 28 change points.
That's another surprise for people. Most people don't associate something positive like this with stress. But again, we are looking at change and stress being related to one another.
Even in the next area, change in activities, it's even more dramatic. Change in recreational patterns, 19 change points.
So if you took up tennis in the last year, we are looking at 19 points.
If you had a change in church activities -- if you are going to church less than you did a year earlier, we're looking at 19 change points.
If you've had a change in social activities, you've taken on new friends, 18 change points.
If you've changed your sleeping patterns, you are commuting now and you have to get up an hour earlier and go to bed an hour later, we're looking at 16 change points.
If you had a change in the number of family get-togethers in the last year, 15 points.
If you had a change in your eating habits, so for example if you decided to give up or cut down on your red meat, 15 change points.
Things that you wouldn't normally consider as being stressful are on this test. They aren't major, but they do impact in total on us.
And this last segment, deals with holidays. If you had a vacation within the last year, give yourself 13 change units. You may be surprised to say vacation as a cause of stress -- that's how I deal with my stress. And yet if any of you have ever left a nice, cold climate and flown south to a warmer climate and changed your diet, changed your routine, and gotten sick while on holiday or sick soon after returning where that change however positive and well deserved kind of just tips the balance of health and illness.
And even here the last question is Christmas. If you experienced Christmas within the last year, you get 12 change points. And everybody experiences Christmas.
Deepak: In one way or another I suppose.
Can I add up my scores now?
Eli: Let's leave that for later. I'd rather look at the implications now.
Researchers have found that the higher the score, the more serious the illness. And in fact, after working with 10,000s of people over many decades, the research is quite precise. And they found that if you score over 300 change points in a 12 month period, there is an 89% chance that some illness will develop within the next 2 years.
If you score under 300 but more than 150, sort of the mid-range, there is roughly a 50 - 50 chance that you'll get some illness within the next couple of years.
And if you score under 150, there is roughly a 37% chance that some illness will emerge.
Deepak: Now that's fascinating. If I understand the test correctly, the combination of a few things such as a death of someone close to you, the purchase of a new house and the mortgage that goes with it, and a promotion, it could add up to a serious possibility of getting sick in the next couple of years.
Eli: Yes, and these things can creep up on one very quickly. Research has shown that the higher the score, the more serious illness likely results. And it could be anything from a cold to a flu, right through to heart disease to strokes to arthritis to even cancer.
Deepak: Eli, while you were talking, I added up my score and came up with 179. Now that puts me in the middle range right here and that means that I have a better of even chance of getting sick in the next two years?
Eli: That's right.
Deepak: How serious is this? Should I plan for it now?
Eli: No. Trend is not destiny. What you should be aware of though is your body is undergoing a great deal of strain and stress as a result of these changes. And that there are things that you can do to prevent that stress from building to the point of illness.
Deepak: So what can we do?
Eli: We can learn to turn on the body's natural anti-stress mechanism, the relaxation response.
The relaxation response was first identified by Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School back in the early 1970s. Benson, one of the world's foremost cardiologists, discovered in the course of his research that built into every single body was a natural anti-stress mechanism that is equal to but opposite of that of the body stress response.
In fact, the model that Benson identified, I think I can best illustrate very simply -- if you imagine that my torso is the body's autonomic nervous system, we all have an autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system handles the so called automatic functions. You don't have to think about digesting your food or about breathing or having a heart beat. Those are conducted automatically by the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system has two branches, it has the sympathetic branch and a para-sympathetic branch. They are equal but opposite.
When we experience stress, it is the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system that is turned on -- it's an arousal state. It's the same reaction if a cat were standing with its back arched, hair on end, ready to fight or to run.
That same reaction in us is what is literally called the body stress mechanism. It's the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system.
What we are going to be learning to turn on is the opposite, the para-sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. It's a measurable and scientifically defined shift in the body -- and when it comes on, it literally shuts down the body stress mechanism. Again, it's measurable, your blood pressure drops, your heart rate slows down, your muscle tension is reduced, your metabolism slows down. Even your brain waves slow down.
And when you turn on the body's relaxation response, it literally shuts down the body's stress response, right at the level of stress hormones.
Deepak: Now how do I do that?
Eli: There are many ways that you can learn to turn on the relaxation response and that's what the intention of this whole series is about, to present you a number of practical effective techniques that will enable you to pretty much at will shut down the body stress response so the body can rest and recuperate properly.
I want to show you a very simple technique, a breathing exercise that will enable you to control the levels of stress in your own system right at the level of stress hormones.
Deepak: Now breathing is something I do every day, how can it cure all of my ills?
Eli: Well I'm not sure I can say that it will cure all of your ailments but it will certainly give you a handle on the stresses that you experience in your day to day life.
Breathing is a rhythm that is with us from the moment we are born until the moment that we die. And very few people ever pay attention to their breathing. But it's important to realize that breathing and emotions are intimately connected.
When we are tense, frightened, angry, our breathing is short and shallow and located in our chest. When we are relaxed, our breathing is easy and deep and located in our abdomen. And just the very act of breathing as if you are relaxed, enables you to become relaxed. It reflects the flow of hormones through your entire endocrine system. And by breathing slowly, deeply into the abdomen, the way a child breathes, you start to become relaxed regardless of the situation.
Deepak: Yeah, that's just like my daughter's breathing -- you can see her tummy rise and fall.
Eli: All children do it like that, we used to breathe like that. In fact, that's really our birth right.
When we are children, we start to breathe into the abdomen and as we accumulate stress and tension through our life, the breathing shifts up into the chest.
And most adults tend to be chest breathers unless they've had woodwind training or theater training of voice training. Most adults tend to breathe in their chest which is related to stress.
And one of the most easiest and practical ways to control the stress in your life is to be able to breathe as if you are relaxed.
Would you like me to show you an exercise?
Eli: Get comfortable. And for those of you at home, you get much more out of this program by actually doing the program with us rather than just watching. So follow along with us.
Put one hand on your best and the other hand on your upper abdomen. Just focus your attention into your breathing and just be aware and see which hand is moving -- is your upper hand moving or your bottom hand moving? Are you breathing into your chest or into your upper abdomen?
So you are breathing into your chest? Most adults tend to breathe into their chest. And the very simple act of just breathing in through your nose and guiding the air down into your abdomen, letting your abdomen rise and fall with each breath is really all that you need to do. So just in through the nose, letting your belly rise.. letting your belly fall.
You don't want your upper hand to move, you just want to consciously direct the air into the bottom part of you lungs, so that as you bring in the abdomen rises, and as you breathe out the abdomen falls.
Deepak: It's pretty simple.
Eli: I've seen this simple exercise transform people's lives.
If you just remember that when you breathe as if you are relaxed, you start to become relaxed. This breathing exercise affects the flow of hormones through your whole body and literally has an effect on turning on the body's relaxation response which affects every aspect of your body. It affects you physically, mentally, emotionally. It affects every system of your body, digestive system, cardio-vascular system, respiratory system.
And you can do the same. You can do this travelling on the bus or the subway. You can do this in the car even when you are driving as long as you do it with your eyes open.
You can do it anywhere. It's unobtrusive, you could stand in front of 100s of people and do it. And I only invite you to try it and do it for 10 or 15 minutes and just observe and see what kinds of changes happen.
Most people are really truly amazed at how practical and effective this is. If I had time to come and teach people only one exercise out of the 100s that I know, this is the one that I would teach. It is profound in its effects. Don't be put off because it's so simple. Who said it had to be difficult?
Now just to be able to breathe in this way all the time is a goal. If people practice this for 15 minutes a day over a period of 4 - 6 weeks, there is literally a re-training of the breathing apparatus so that at the end of a month or month and a half, most people are naturally reconnected with their diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing.
And your whole baseline of stress changes. When you are breathing as if you are relaxed all the time, you stay at a lower level of stress.
Deepak: Well I'm certainly going to do this. But tell me, how does this exercise fit in the series? You are going to show us a number of exercises?
Eli: Yes, we are going to look at a number of different practical techniques that people can carry away with them.
Deepak: Are they all going to be as simple as this?
Eli: Maybe not quite as simple, but some will be.
We're going to be looking at a range of different approaches. There are physical techniques, there are mental techniques, there are breathing techniques.
Generally people tend to find that one method works better for them than the other. Although of all the methods that I'm familiar with, the diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing exercise that we just did is really perhaps the universal most popular exercise because it really works.
Deepak: Well you've convinced me to make the experiment Eli. I'll read breathe through my tummy for a while and report back to you on how I feel.
Eli: You don't have to report back to me. It's yours. Use it and enjoy it.
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Program Length: 26:50 min
About the Program:
Program 1 Feeling Better, looks at the mechanism of stress and introduces deep relaxation as a method of dealing with the changes and challenges in life that stimulate the body's stress reaction.