Stress: Don't Get Tense About It

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Stress: Don't Get Tense About It

Feeling of Emotional, Physical Tension Can Be Reduced

By the time you opened the newspaper this morning, you probably had to deal with a number of stressful situations: Waking up to the sound of the alarm when you would rather stay in bed, finding once again the newspaper that you canceled months ago sitting on your doorstep.

If you are reading this at the office, you know exactly what I am talking about - after all, driving in Seoul is one of the worst things you can do to your blood pressure.

Stress is a feeling of tension that is both emotional and physical. It can occur in specific situations, and different people perceive different situations as stressful. Remember those people who sat calmly behind the wheel despite being stuck for two hours in Namsan tunnel, singing along to the music on their CD, oblivious of the world outside their cars?

The individual's attitude can influence whether a situation is stressful or not. A person with a negative attitude will tend to perceive many situations as stressful. In fact, a negative attitude is a predictor of stress because this type of person responds with more stress than a person with a more positive outlook.

Just as important as attitude is physical well-being. If the nutritional state of a person is poor, the body is stressed and the person is not able to respond constructively to a stressful situation.

Some of the most common signs of stress are mood swings, skin problems, muscle tension, changes in sleep patterns, low self-esteem, anxiety, tiredness, poor concentration, changes in eating patterns and poor memory.

It is important to develop coping strategies to help you reduce the effects of stress in your life.

"Dealing effectively with stress, maintaining a healthy mental state, not only promotes physical well-being but improves the quality of life," says Rim Hyo-deog, chairman of the Korean Psychosomatic Society, which is holding a one-day symposium on "Understanding and Managing Stress" on Saturday at Yonsei Severance Hospital, Seoul.

The first step toward managing stress is being aware of your own warning signs, such as a sudden feeling of anxiety, extreme tiredness, catching every cold that's going around and feeling run-down.

Eating a balanced diet should also help you combat the effects of stress. Eating complex carbohydrates such as wholemeal bread rather than refined carbohydrates can help with mood swings. Fresh fruit and vegetables can help boost your immune system as it fights colds and flu - ailments you get often when under stress.

Scheduling regular periods of relaxation every day should also help you keep stress under control, as should regular exercise.

It is important to recognize what is happening inside your body as it reacts to a stressful situation so you can learn to control your response.

When stress strikes, several things happen immediately. First, the skeletal muscles contract and the hypothalamus of the brain reacts. Under stress, as the muscles tense, the breathing becomes faster and deeper. The heartbeat quickens. Some blood vessels constrict, raising the blood pressure and almost completely closing the vessels right under the skin. The throat muscles and those in the nostrils force those passages wide open. The stomach and intestines temporarily halt digestion. Perspiration increases and secretion of mucus and saliva decreases. The pupils of the eyes dilate involuntarily.

At the same time, the adrenal glands release epinephrine and norepinephrine, hormones which affect circulation, elevating heartbeat and blood pressure.

These hormones, in turn, signal the spleen to release more red blood corpuscles. They enable the blood to clot more quickly and encourage the bone marrow to produce more white corpuscles. They also increase the amount of fat and sugar in the blood.

While all this is happening, the pituitary gland secretes two more hormones, TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) and ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone). These hormones increase the rate at which the body produces energy and reinforce signals sent to the adrenal glands through the autonomic nervous system.

ACTH also causes the adrenal glands to release about 30 other stress-related hormones.

The muscles of the skeletal systems, the striated muscles attached to the bones, also react to stress. When you perceive a stressful event, the muscles contract immediately. Neural impulses generated by muscle tension are transmitted to the brain along sensory control fibers.

When these neural impulses enter the brain, extremely complex central nervous system events result, following which additional neural impulses from the brain reach the muscles along motor control fibers.

When the motor neural impulses from the brain reach the muscles there is further muscular contraction and the muscle-brain-muscle circuit can continually repeat, resulting in a chronic state of over-tension.

Over-tension can lead to cardiovascular problems, fatigue and general aches and pains. While there is no quick and easy cure, the state of excessive tension can be interrupted by simply relaxing the skeletal muscles.

However, this is easier said than done, and you will need to learn to relax. In progressive relaxation, a proven method of reducing tension, you first learn to recognize a state of tension in a localized region of the body; second, you learn to contrast the tension signal with the state of elimination of tension, which is relaxation.

Each major muscle group is systematically tensed so that you can learn to identify the tension sensation for the muscle group. After recognizing the tension sensation in the muscle group, you eliminate it by relaxing it.

In addition to the localized relaxation of muscle groups, you need to reduce widespread, generalized tension that is chronically carried throughout the limbs and large muscles of the body. In progressive relaxation technique, control comes from tensing the entire limb very gradually, then gradually relaxing it.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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