Michael Hunter, MD on Medika Life

Three Ways to Drop Your Stress

STRESS INCREASES YOUR RISK OF CHRONIC DISEASE. When we perceive danger, our bodies respond by releasing stress hormones. This surge of stress hormones is beneficial in the moment but, if sustained over time, is associated with chronic inflammation.

With chronic stress comes persistent activation of your immune system and a higher chance of heart disease, stroke, and dementia.

There are several ways you can reduce stress. Today we look at a range of possibilities, including getting adequate sleep, practicing mindfulness, getting some physical activity, optimizing the noise around you, etc.

Here are some times to fight chronic stress and hopefully dodge chronic illnesses like heart disease and stroke.

Stress Buster #1 — Sleep

I begin with this as so many are not aware of the health implications of inadequate sleep. The American Psychological Association alludes to a negative cycle: Stressed individuals get less sleep, and those who get inadequate sleep feel more stressed.

Americans sleep 6.7 hours per night, less than the recommended seven to nine hours. Moreover, over four in ten adults report that their sleep quality is fair or poor, and the same percentage offer that stress has caused them to lie awake at night over the last month.

The reverse is also true: One in five adults feel more stressed when they get inadequate sleep. About 45 percent of those already stressed report feeling even more if they get short sleep.

Here are my five top tips for improving your sleep:5 Things You Need to Do to Get Better Sleep, Backed by ScienceSLEEP IS STRONGLY regulated by biological drive, but the ability to fall asleep at your preferred time and to maintain…medium.com

Stress Buster #2 — Walk

Physical activity (in virtually any form) can provide stress relief. Release your endorphins to feel better and distract you from quotidian worries. Walking can be meditation in motion, especially if you can ambulate with trees or bodies of water in sight.

Esther Inglis-Arkell reminds us that trees are natural fractals, containing patterns that repeat smaller and smaller copies of themselves. Every branch is a copy of the one before it from the trunk to the tips.

Leonardo Da Vinci first reported the ability of trees to create the most straightforward and most efficient growth pattern. In the 1500s, the polymath offered that if we strip the leaves of an average tree, soak the whole thing in water until it gets mushy, bundle the branches up, and get what looks like one long trunk.

Photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash

Inglis-Arkell continues, explaining that while not true for all trees, we see this pattern of branches: If a trunk breaks off into three main branches, each of these branches will be one-third the trunk size. When each of those branches again splits into three, creating nine branches on the second ‘tier’ of the tree, each of these second-tier branches will be one-ninth the trunk size.

As the branches grow and split, they continue to represent a certain fraction of the trunk size. Adding together all the fractional bits of each ‘tier’ of branches will always add up to “one trunk.” This pattern isn’t the case in all trees, but the majority hold to this pattern.

Dr. Hunter, you are probably asking by now, where are you going with all of this? A particular fractal complexity delights us, making our brain dance. You can find the correct pattern in the ocean where you stare and in the trees you walk.

Photo by Philipp Trubchenko on Unsplash

A growing body of research points to the therapeutic effects of fractal patterns on our human brain. Using imaging tools such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), EEG, and physiological measures of stress, scientists discovered that looking at fractals can drop stress levels by 60 percent.

Fractal exposure activates brain areas associated with stress regulation. The mechanism? When we see fractals (at a certain complexity level), we get physiological resonance in our eyes. This phenomenon corresponds to an increase in particular (alpha) wave frequency in our brain’s frontal lobes. The result? We feel more relaxed and have a sense of well-being.

That’s the science. Here’s the practical implication: Walk in nature. Spy some trees or eyeball the ocean waves, if you are able.

Stress Buster #3 — Do A Relaxation Exercise

Have you ever heard about the relaxation response, the counterpart to the stress response?

The relaxation response is a physical state of deep rest that changes a person’s physical and emotional responses to stress.

In the 1960s, Herbert Benson, MD, discovered the relaxation response’s power to drop stress. His subsequent research investigations found that the approach is not dissimilar from practices over the millennia, including chanting, prayer, and repetitive motion.

In his 2008 address to the American Psychological Association Annual Convention, Dr. Benson explains that getting the relaxation response is simple. Get in a relaxed position, eyes closed, and repeat a word or sound as your breath. Some use “love” or “peace” as their mantra words.

Continuing, he offers that traditional prayers can do the trick, too. If your thoughts stray, refocus on the word repetition. Not a praying person? Again, Dr. Benson: “There are scores of other practices to elicit the relaxation response. Anything that breaks the train of everyday thought will do it.”

You can run, practice yoga, crochet, knit, or do what I do: Head to the piano. Such practices can drop your blood pressure, heart rates, and oxygen consumption. Most relevant to today’s discussion, they can also help with stress, anxiety, insomnia, etc.

Stress Relief — Other Approaches

Other stress-reducing maneuvers I embrace include lowering the noise level around me, chilling to some music such as Bach’s Preludes and Fugues, or laughing with a small group of friends. As an introvert, exposure to folks for too long stresses me, so there is that.

Photo by Dolo Iglesias on Unsplash

Are you stressed out? What do you do for stress relief?

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Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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