Most stress reduction techniques focus on combating the physiological responses to acute or chronic stress. Meditation, visualization, and exercise help combat the negative physiological effects of chronic stress. Talk therapy and behavior modification help the individual cope with stressful situations, and avoid the emotional and physical damage caused by an over-stressed system. By lowering levels of stress hormones and encouraging the body to return to a non-stressed state, the most effective stress reduction techniques counteract the negative health effects of emotional, physical, or mental stress.
Chronic stress is a well-established risk factor for many common health problems. Heart disease, diabetes, ulcers, substance abuse, and various mental health disorders often occur with increased frequency and severity among highly stressed individuals. Studies have indicated that it is not the nature of the stressful situation that contributes to these disorders, but rather individual perception and response to stressors, suggesting that negative effects of stressful situations can be effectively combated by implementing effective stress reduction techniques.
The body typically responds to stress with a fight or flight response. This typically involves an increase in heart rate, breath rate, and blood pressure, as well as secretion of the hormone adrenaline. When the stressful situation has passed, this response is followed by a relaxation response and the return to a normal state. Under chronic stress, the relaxation response is absent, triggering the release of energy stores and secretion the stress hormone cortisol.
The combined effects of lowered energy resources and elevated cortisol levels can impact the immune system. A weakened immune system can increase the occurrences of minor illnesses, and eventually create a heightened risk of serious illness. Effective stress reduction techniques act to combat these physiological effects by decreasing breathing and heart rate, imposing a relaxation response, and teaching effective strategies to cope with the natural stress response.
Meditation is one of the most common, effective, and affordable stress reduction techniques. During meditation, the individual practices focusing, uncritically, on a single object, word, or sound. By paying focused attention to breathing, a candle flame, a flower, or mantra, the meditation practitioner learns to be aware of thoughts without being consumed by them, and to live in the moment. This has the benefit of preventing the highs and lows of emotion that are associated with a stressed state.
Visualization can create a relaxing break from a stressful situation. By taking a moment in a quiet place to envision a peaceful setting or idea, a stressed person can stimulate the relaxation response and overcome many of the physiological effects of stress. A similar technique, self-hypnosis, takes advantage of the relaxed and suggestible state induced by visualization to insert positive ideas into the consciousness. Visualization and self-hypnosis have been successfully employed in medical settings to prepare patients for surgery, or to complement the effects of chemotherapy.
Yoga and other forms of exercise promote the release of endorphins, natural hormones that alleviate pain and increase emotional well-being. Yoga also employs the use of focused breathing and has similar psychological effects to meditation. Cardiovascular exercise is perhaps one of the most effective stress reduction techniques, by providing an outlet for the energy released by adrenaline during the fight or flight response associated with stressful situations.
Talk therapy and behavior modification teach a chronically stressed individual to cope with stress by minimizing the fight or flight response and consciously triggering the relaxation response. Positive self-talk and refuting negative thoughts are mental strategies to alter the emotional and mental perception of stressful situations. Chronically stressed individuals can also learn to reduce stress simply by avoiding stressful people or circumstances. Awareness of physiological responses to stress and appropriate coping techniques can effectively reduce negative outcomes on health and wellness.