War. Economic uncertainty. Bitter cold. Unachieved goals.
Welcome to 2010. The year's only just begun, but there's already plenty to be stressed out about.
"At this time of year, generally people are recovering from overdosing on sugars and alcohol," says Donald Dossey, a behavioral scientist who's the founder of the Stress Management Center/Phobia Institute in Asheville. "Fear about the economy is a big factor right now. There's tax time coming up. And we're at a time when a lot of people feel that they haven't accomplished what they should have, so they set up goals, or resolutions, which are notorious failures."
"You add all that together," notes Dossey, "and you've got a pretty stressful situation facing a lot of people."
So what's the answer to de-stressing in a stress-filled world? For Dossey and other health experts, it's all about slowing down, taking a step back from your fast-paced life and mastering a few basic techniques. Here are some suggestions from local experts on how you can ratchet down the tension in your life.
Dossey is a strong believer in setting goals.
"Not New Year's resolutions: They don't work. But goals. They'll work if you set them up correctly," he asserts.
First, write down what you want to accomplish, then work backward on the steps you need to accomplish to get there, says Dossey. Keep them simple. And consider breaking them into categories, such as spiritual, health, financial and relationship goals, he suggests.
Then let your unconscious mind help you out by visualizing success. "If you focus beyond the goal and get the feeling that it's already completed, your body will help you get there," he advises. Think of how your mind reacts when you get that sensation of hunger, says Dossey. Suddenly you're noticing every deli sign and scent of a sandwich. The same holds true for goal-setting.
"If you feel stuck, you've either got the wrong goal or the right goal set up wrong. If you have them set up correctly, you'll get excited and you'll have fun about going after those goals."
Meditation goes mainstream
Once the sole province of mystics, meditation these days has gone mainstream, because science now recognizes the measurable physiological benefits of giving your brain a little vacation, says Tom Ball of The Transcendental Meditation Program of Asheville. Ball, who co-directs the program with his wife, Jeanne, reports that more than 6 million people now turn to TM for relaxation as well as self-development.
"Stress is epidemic," says Ball, citing a National Institutes of Health study which concluded that 85 to 90 percent of either the cause or complications of disease is tied to stress. "Stress is serious stuff."
Ball's answer is the technique known as Transcendental Meditation. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced the program to the world in 1957, says Ball, then invited scientists to investigate. The result, he says, is a "vast body of scientific research" documenting beneficial effects.
Transcendental Meditation enables practitioners to quiet their brain and delve deep within themself, he explains. The twice-daily practice requires 15 to 20 minutes of sitting quietly with your eyes closed and settling into a state referred to as "restful alertness."
The results can include increased creativity and happiness, as well as a high state of consciousness, says Ball. "It's not mysticism or mythology: It's reality."
Breath is life, and when it comes to proper breathing, less is more.
So says Dorisse Neale, a registered nurse for 32 years who grew up severely asthmatic. Eventually, Neale's long-standing interest in holistic medicine led her to the Buteyko breathing method, which see says healed her asthma. Dr. Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko, a Ukrainian physician, developed this system of controlled breathing in the late 1950s, based on his research.
Neale, who calls herself a "respiratory educator," teaches the technique through her in-home clinic, her in-home, BreathDance Studio where she teaches wellness, movement and what she calls remedial breathing education.
The method, she explains, is based on "gentle breath-holding. Holding breath back slightly after an exhale can increase the level of carbon dioxide in the body. Carbon dioxide is essential for the body to use oxygen, and for maintaining the body's proper acid/ alkaline balance, she says
"Carbon dioxide is a waste gas only in excess," says Neale, noting that your grandmother's advice about breathing into a paper bag if you're feeling faint is all about breathing in more carbon dioxide to boost oxygenation and circulation.
Faced with stress, the body goes into its classic fight-or-flight mode, which includes restricted upper-chest breathing and mouth breathing, notes Neale. But by training yourself to breathe consciously, you can learn to de-stress.
"I like to quote a Tibetan saying: 'The breath is the horse; the mind is the rider.' So we have to take the reins with our breathing," Neale maintains. "It's an every-day practice to pay attention to your breath."
Bringing it all together with yoga
The practice of yoga brings together meditation, breathing and movement. And for Sunny Keach of the Asheville Yoga Center, that combination is a potent stress-beater.
The movement, the guided imagery and just the "time to be present with yourself" all add up. Stress, says Keach, is essentially fear of the future or the past, and yoga "gets you in the present moment."
Keach and his wife, Stephanie, own and run the Asheville Yoga Center on South Liberty Street, which has been in business for 14 years now. The center employs about 20 instructors and offers a variety of classes seven days a week.
"We have something for everybody, but we've probably got more flow yoga classes" that focus on dynamic movement," says Keach.
And though some 16 million Americans already practice yoga, he notes, his center is still seeking out new students.
The center is kicking off a "yoga challenge," which rewards people with a T-shirt, guest passes and discounts depending on how many days in a row they practice, Keach reports.