Stress is universal. What’s not as common is the use of natural methods to prevent or relieve feeling stressed. We all deal with degrees of stress, and the range of intensity can be vast--from simply a bad mood to a serious problem. Feeling constantly overwhelmed or un-centered can lead to depression and have a serious effect on your health. In fact, the leading cause of death in the United States, heart disease, can be directly linked to high stress levels.
Food is one of the simplest and most common outlets people use to relieve stress. The term “comfort food” derives from the sense of satiation and distraction a delicious meal can provide. Unfortunately, turning to food too often for stress relief can quickly become an unhealthy habit with downsides. Other addictive vices for stress include cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. None of these will help conquer stress in the long-run (and just add more problems to your plate), and each of these habits can make for some serious health conditions. Additionally, there are many medications prescribed to reduce stress. While these may work for some people, a pill is targeting the symptoms of the feeling, not the source.
The bottom line is that there is nothing to lose by trying out some natural stress relieving activities. Unlike our usual go-to’s, these don’t come out of a bottle and they have zero negative side effects. In fact, these ideas can enrich your life and help you live longer, healthier, and happier.
Sometimes described as “meditation in motion”, the purpose of Tai Chi (pronounced ‘tie – chee’) is to connect the mind and the body. This connection can help you to ‘get out of your head’ and to live in the moment, free of worry about tasks or the future.
Tai Chi is composed of strategic, gentle movements performed in slow motion. Also called Tai Chi Chuan, Tai Chi is a self-paced gentle physical exercise composed of stretching. Each movement is meant to flow into the next without pause, so the body is in constant, but slow, motion.
The rhythmic patterns used in Tai Chi are coordinated with breathing exercises, ensuring that you are fully mindful of every movement, which takes your mind off other matters and brings you back in tune with your body. Originally developed in ancient China as a form of self-defense, this graceful exercise is now used by healthcare professionals as well as meditation gurus to help reduce stress, lower blood pressure, improve flexibility and muscle mobility, and it can even help relieve chronic pain and increase energy.
The belief that balance should exist within the body is the heart of Chinese medicine. This balance refers to both physical and mental wellbeing; the two are believed to be closely related. A great natural option for stress relief is the ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture.
A large component of TCM is the study of hundreds of points, known as acupoints, on the human body, each corresponding to a different organ or channel of energy, the larger of which are known as ‘meridians’. It is these points that are utilized in acupuncture and acupressure treatments.
Each point is carefully chosen to correspond with the other points to treat the issue at hand. Acupuncture involves the application of fine needles (think very fine—they bend at the touch) to specific acupoints based on the patient’s diagnosis, while acupressure involves the practitioner’s fingers pressing on these points on the skin’s surface to stimulate the body's natural self-curative abilities. Acupuncture has been acknowledged by The World Health Organization to successfully treat over forty-three conditions including stress, depression, and anxiety.
A recent study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently stated that human touch releases uplifting endorphins like serotonin, and reduces blood pressure and heart rate, making you more relaxed and content. Asian Bodywork is a branch of massage that includes many different forms of massage, each inspired by Eastern origins, many of which incorporate Oriental medicine properties. Asian Bodywork includes forms of massage such as Tui Na, Shiatsu, and Thai Massage.
For example, a Shiatsu massage is a Japanese modality that begins with a “hara” diagnosis. During a hara diagnosis, the massage therapist presses on a variety of anatomical locations (points), in the abdomen that correlate to specific organs. The therapist is trying to find which points are “excessive” or “deficient”. An excessive point will often feel hard and can mean that there is stagnated energy relating to the corresponding organ of the point. By focusing on the specific points they feel are “deficient” or “excessive” a massage therapist can restore the natural balance of energy in the body.
Tui Na is another form of massage in Asian bodywork that incorporates acupoints. While many techniques of Tui Na such as gilding, kneading, rotation, and rocking are similar to western forms of massage, the intent of Tui Na is more than therapeutic. This massage utilizes hand techniques to restore correct anatomical musculoskeletal relationships, neuromuscular patterns, and to increase the circulation of blood remove biochemical irritants. Tui Na is particularly effective for neck and shoulder pain—which is where the majority of people hold their stress.
Massage is an enjoyable, healthy activity that can boost your mood, increase your mobility, and help you sleep better, providing you with higher levels of energy. The benefits of massage last long after you’ve left the massage table.
Food for Thought
Certain foods can boost your mood in addition to giving your body necessary nutrients. People with low levels of the omega-3s found in fish like salmon, nuts, and leafy greens have been found to be more prone to depression. Eating essential fatty acids like omega 3s can also boost your heart health and lower triglycerides, as well as help with other conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
Also make sure you’re getting plenty of antioxidants. The antioxidant selenium, found in Brazil nuts, is an important one. Being low on selenium can get you down. Antioxidants are found in berries and other fruits, the darker the better, blueberries and acai berries are great sources.
Much like Tai Chi, the movements found in yoga can boost serotonin and endorphin levels, resulting in an immediate sense of wellbeing that can help burst a bad day bubble.
Yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which can work to calm you down almost immediately. Practicing yoga regularly can put you in touch with your body. It enhances your life because it makes you live in the moment, even if that focus is only during your yoga class, it will help you.
Just a brief respite from the daily grind, that 30 minutes or an hour of yoga practice can help ground you when you’re in fast-paced situations elsewhere. Yoga encourages relaxation and lowers your levels of cortisol, the “stress chemical” in your body.
The bottom line is that stress isn’t just an unpleasant way to feel—it can affect your life in the long-term. Chronic stress and illness are intertwined. Stress can cause migraines, up your odds for contracting a cold or flu, and increase your risk of heart disease.
The good news is that you don’t need to counteract your discomfort with quick fixes, like fatty foods or nicotine, that could cause more problems for you later. These vices only make you feel better temporarily and can come back to bite you.
By giving natural stress relief remedies like acupuncture, yoga, or massage a try, you’ll not only feel better in the moment, but the sense of inner peace you achieve will carry over into the time you aren’t spending on the yoga mat or massage table. Do something nice for yourself in the moment that will also make your future bright!
“Stress Relief” by Alan Lopez, Eucalyptus Magazine
“Boost Your Mood Naturally” Health.com
“5 Surprising Benefits of Yoga” Yoga Journal