We all suffer from stress now and then but sometimes it becomes overwhelming and there doesn’t seem to be any way around it. We talk to a doctor about what stress is, why we get it and how we can relieve it through exercise and other means. We also discuss how a new product that uses touch and aroma has helped one therapist’s clients through some very stressful situations.
Host: Marty Peterson. Guests: Dr. Michael Roizen, Chief Wellness Officer, The Cleveland Clinic; Nancy Rothner, clinical hypnotherapist, creator of “Pinch Me Therapy Dough,” and the book, Stress Relief in a Pinch.
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Stress: Causes and some easy treatments
Marty Peterson: Everyone suffers from it at one time or another: it’s that tight feeling in the chest, the racing heart, nervous feeling that can hit all of a sudden or build slowly throughout the day. It’s stress, and according to Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic, it can wreak havoc with our health and our lives.
Dr. Michael Roizen: Stress is the leading cause of disease, not only in America, but in the world. It is the greatest ager of our immune system, the greatest ager of our cardiovascular system, and the greatest cause of accidents. So it’s associate with more heart disease, stroke and memory loss than anything else; it’s associated with cancer and infections, and more accidents.
Peterson: Although it can have all of these dire consequences, Roizen says that stress is a natural state for our bodies to be in under certain, extreme, circumstances.
Roizen: Stress is the normal response we developed to escape would-be attackers in the olden days. So when the wooly mammoth came at you or came to your cave, you evolved a response that generated hormones and neurotransmitters that made you more focused, more alert, raised your blood sugar, raised your heart rate and all of those things were such that you could either fight the wooly mammoth or run from him or, in the weird case, freeze so he thought you were dead already. And so “fight, flight or freeze” is what we call our normal response, but it generates an increase in heart rate, usually and increase in blood pressure, an increase in blood glucose levels, a suppression of a lot of other things. So it’s a perfectly normal response to being attacked by a wooly mammoth.
Peterson: These days we’re not likely to be attacked by a wooly mammoth – or any other large animal – but our bodies still create the response to other stimuli such as a last-minute project at work, or someone cutting you off in traffic. Roizen says that the response of the body to those modern-day stressors is the same, although we’re not running away or fighting a dangerous foe.
Roizen: The stress response, and it’s the same stress response as we’ve had or evolved to escape the wooly mammoth, now causes you, that increased glucose isn’t useful, the increased sugar, so you store it and you gain weight in the abdomen. The increased cortisol, that increased alertness, wonderful to focus your attention but chronically it, in fact, causes an inadequate immune response. It also causes destruction of the branching or memories or neurons – the extra connections in your brain. Totally something normal. So you focused on what was important in the olden days, but now it destroys memory when chronically. And the increased heart rate and blood pressure, if they’re chronically, are also not good as they increase aging of your arteries, as sugar does, and aging, if you will, of the immune system so that you have more cancers.
Peterson: Weight gain in the middle section, wrinkles, aging arteries, more infections, disease, and memory loss! Today’s stressors –if they’re not addressed – are a prescription for a physical and mental breakdown. That’s why stress relief is so important in modern life. But what do you do to relieve the day-to-day stresses of living and working? Roizen says that it depends on the person, but without a doubt, physical exercise is one answer that millions of people turn to. Exercise, if done right, can not only relieve the physical harm of stress, but also the mental harm.
Roizen: There are two aspects to this. So, acutely, that is when you’re exercising, it helps you clear your mind and gives you other “highs” so that you don’t have the same response to a event that you shouldn’t have and a heightened response to. So one is that clearing of the mind, the clearing of attention, the focusing of attention on something else. So the exercise that is required to do this is a fairly intense level of exercise. That is just walking is usually not enough for a stress response. The exercise that is necessary is one that is heightened so that you can’t focus on anything else but the exercise.
Peterson: The second aspect of intense exercise is at the cellular level in our bodies. Roizen says that exercise induces our cells to create substances that quench harmful free radicals.
Roizen: Exercise is one of those great things that increases those levels so that you can deal with other abnormalities that you get. And so the ability of exercise to help you manage the stress response by helping you adapt to it by activity and by helping you refocus your attention are really very important at helping you manage those things that would otherwise stress you a lot.
Peterson: There are other ways to combat stress, but Roizen says that the evidence that the reasons they do are just hypotheses at the moment. One of these is focused breathing.
Roizen: We think focused breathing or focusing on your breath, putting your hand on your belly button and feeling go away from your spine as you take a breath in and feeling go towards your spine as you breathe out, is really a different focus for your attention. It’s essentially a mind-clearing effort, and that mind-clearing effort is how deep breathing or breathing works to relieve or ameliorate the fight, flight or freeze part of the stress response.
Peterson: Other treatments for alleviating stress such as touch and aromatherapy have only anecdotal evidence to back them up – but the people who use them swear by them. Roizen says that our sense of smell, though, is the only sense that’s connected directly to the brain.
Roizen: The aroma itself, your nerve from the – what we call the olfactory nerve, the smell nerve – goes right from your nose essentially to your brain. It’s a direct connection. It’s the only one that has that. And that direct connection speeds the sensation of the odor and we think also calms other areas of the brain directly. So it is a specially potent form of stress relief, is aromatherapy, we think.
Peterson: Roizen says, though, that aromatherapy scents should be from essential oils to work best. Touch is another way that people relieve stress but, again, there is no hard medical evidence for why it works.
Roizen: We really don’t know what it is about touch, what it is about massage, what it is about a number of the things that actually makes your response to stress both much less and much less damaging to you. Meaning, you feel it’s much less of a stress, and it is from a physiologic standpoint much less of a disturbance to your physiology, much less of a likelihood to cause a health effect. So, is it the actual reversion of concentration to something else? We aren’t sure of that.
Peterson: Many of Nancy Rothner’s clients are sure about touch and aroma for relieving stress. Rothner is a clinical hypnotherapist and creator of “Pinch Me Therapy Dough and the accompanying book, Stress Relief in a Pinch. She says that her Pinch Me dough is something she’s devised that’s easy for her clients to carry around with them anywhere and also pleasant to use when they feel stress coming on.
Nancy Rothner: It’s real light and simple to use. It’s moldable clay infused with aromatherapy and we’ve put in the top spa-quality oils to have the texture, the residual texture on the hands be very soothing and calming. And, I guess as far as how or why it works, what’s happening simultaneously would be a few things. When someone, say, grabs a piece of the Pinch Me — and men typically take out the whole container, women often a smaller amount — but whatever amount is comforting, to just take a piece and begin to knead it through your fingers, when someone is around a scent that they like there is a reflex in the body and that’s to shift to have a fuller open breath. It’s not something you have to think about, it’s just a reflex in the system, and that fuller open breath is one component of guiding one towards stress relief. Typically when we’re stressed, our breath is going to be tight and shallow; when we’re around any scent that we like, we’re going to shift and have an open breath.
Peterson: There have been no medical tests that show how the dough relieves stress, but Rothner says her clients’ feedback after they use it is positive. She says that because it’s portable, many different types of people use it when they’re in or anticipating being in a stressful situation.
Rothner: Many students have reported taking Pinch Me in their backpacks. They have reports of college students during finals week when they’re stressed out and studying, that it’s been an effective aid to help them cope with all of the pressures and the stress then. So I’ve had many students say that it’s been an effective way to become centered and focused when they need to. And then additionally, I’ve had many people who do work in front of the computer, that they’ve found it to be an effective aid there. And even just last week I received a report that a company that used Pinch Me in their corporate meeting, and they said that it made their afternoon meeting much calmer and more relaxing.
Peterson: Rothner says it’s also been used for stress relief when people are tempted to reach for another form of relief that might not be that desirable.
Rothner: I’ve had many clients that, in the evening, might have a little bit of, uh, residual stress and maybe want to grab an extra nighttime cookie or two or three, or the same with a glass of wine, and they’ve found that if they redirect and knead the dough into their hands, that helps kind of calm and soothe them and, therefore, they don’t need to go to the other areas.
Peterson: Finally, Roizen says that taking care of the problem that’s bothering you in the first place is the best solution if your stress is caused by a recurring event or some unfinished business. Dr. Michael Roizen invites listeners to log onto ClevelandClinicWellness.com for tips on living healthy and combating stress. To find out more about Pinch Me Therapy Dough, Nancy Rothner says you visit her site at PinchMeDough.com. To learn more about all of our guests, log onto our site at viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.