De-Stress Your Life
by Mark Houston, M.D. with Barry Fox, Ph.D. and Nadine Taylor, M.S.,
De-Stress Your Life
Stress does more than ruin your mood. Mental stress makes your nervous
system leap into action, with potentially harmful results. You’ve
experienced this many times: Just think of how your body would react
if you were suddenly asked to stand up and deliver an impromptu
speech to a large group. There’s a good chance your heart
would start to pound and you’d begin to perspire. Perhaps
your breathing would become shallow and rapid, and your face might
get hot while your hands grow icy. If someone were to take your
blood pressure right then and there, it would undoubtedly be higher
than it normally is. That’s because the sympathetic nervous
system’s normal response to stress includes increases in heart
rate, vascular resistance, the thickness of the blood, and the stickiness
of the blood platelets—all of which jack up the blood pressure.
When you’re stressed, your body prepares itself to handle
a physical emergency, even if the stress is 100 percent mental.
Your bloodstream is flooded with supercharged stress hormones like
adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol, giving you the strength
and energy to physically fight off an enemy or run for your life—or
both. All of this is very helpful when a mugger is chasing you down
an alley, or if you need to lift a two-ton car all by yourself in
order to free a loved one trapped beneath it. In cases like these,
the stress response is a lifesaver.
But what if there’s no physical outlet for your stress response.
Suppose you’re furious with your boss but have to hold your
tongue. Or maybe your stress response is triggered over and over
as you battle difficult customers, traffic, family problems, and
so on. In either case, the results can be extremely hard on your
body and your health. Just imagine the superstressed person facing
the equivalent of emergency after emergency, day after day, heart
pumping like crazy, blood vessels constricting, blood platelets
ready to clump together, and blood pressure skyrocketing. Something
similar happens in the case of the hot reactor. These people have
exaggerated sympathetic responses to everyday stresses, even small
ones. They might not actually have more stress in their lives than
anyone else, but for them, getting cut off in traffic has the same
internal effect as meeting a grizzly bear in the woods. Since every
little stressor sends their bodies into overdrive, it’s not
surprising that hot reactors often develop atherosclerosis and chronic
Any way you cut it, excessive amounts of stress are bad for your
body—and the effects on your blood vessels are particularly
devastating. Repeated stimuli from the sympathetic nervous system
injures the all-important endothelium, the inner lining of the arteries.
This, in turn, makes the blood vessels tighten up and become more
prone to developing atherosclerosis. Unfortunately, atherosclerotic
blood vessels become even more constricted in response to sympathetic
stimuli. So the more you’re stressed, the more your blood
vessels clamp down and the more your blood pressure rises. After
a while, your blood vessels no longer know how to relax, and your
hypertension may become chronic.
It doesn’t require a terrible mental stress to make your
arteries tighten up. Routine activities, such as hearing a loud
noise, accidentally breaking a glass, or having a chat with your
boss can raise your systolic blood pressure 5 to 10 mm Hg, or more.
Even brief periods of mental stress can cause temporary endothelial
dysfunction in healthy people for as long as four hours after the
However, it’s chronic stress that really takes a toll on
the body and contributes heavily to hypertension. The stress of
working long hours, for example, can significantly increase your
risk of hypertension, heart attacks, and diabetes mellitus. If you’ve
got a job that’s demanding but allows you very little control
(think of Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory), there’s
a good chance that both your blood pressure and blood fats will
rise. To make matters worse, people who have too much stress in
their lives often compensate by developing unhealthy habits like
smoking, drinking, or overeating, all of which can contribute to
Isn’t Physical Stress Also Dangerous?
Studies have shown that mental stress can be much more damaging
to the body than the routine physical stresses we encounter while
going about our normal daily activities or exercising properly.
One such study looked at 196 patients, ages forty to seventy-five,
who had stable coronary artery disease. The researchers tested the
volunteers’ physiological reactions to mental stress (via
public speaking and a color-word test) as opposed to physical stress
(via a stationary bike). When the patients were told to pretend
they had been caught shoplifting and had to prepare and deliver
a three-minute defense in front of a group, their vascular resistance
increased markedly. But when they rode stationary bikes with the
workload increased at regular intervals, their vascular resistance
decreased. This is most likely because the mental stress triggered
the release of epinephrine (adrenaline), which causes vasoconstriction.
But the stationary bike challenge didn’t alter epinephrine
levels, so the blood vessels were able to relax and deliver a greater
supply of blood to the working muscles, as they should.
How Do You Know If You’re Stressed?
We’re all hit with a certain amount of stress in our lives.
Some of us can handle it fairly well, even large amounts. But at
some point you’ll find yourself on overload, stretched to
the breaking point, up to your eyebrows, and just plain stressed
out. For the sake of your physical, mental, and emotional health,
it’s best to recognize the symptoms of impending stress overload
before you actually get to the end of your rope. Then you can scale
back your responsibilities and activities and take things a little
easier. If you should find yourself exhibiting one or more of these
symptoms, you probably need to find more effective ways to manage
and release your stress:
• alcohol abuse
• back aches
• chronic anger
• clenching of the jaw
• crying excessively
• drug abuse or dependency
• heart palpitations
• racing heart
• stomach aches
• sweaty palms
• tightness in the shoulders or neck
• teeth grinding
Anxiety, Depression, And Loneliness
Mental stress often manifests as anxiety or depression, or sometimes
both—and each increases the risk of developing hypertension.
One study gathered data from nearly 3,000 people, ages twenty-five
to sixty, who participated in the National Health and Nutrition
Examination Survey (NHANES), a long-range study that has been following
some 14,000 Americans since 1975. All of the volunteers for the
anxiety/depression study had normal blood pressure in the beginning.
They had their blood pressures taken and they filled out a questionnaire
that evaluated symptoms of anxiety and depression. Ten years later,
the subjects had their blood pressure readings taken again. Those
who had scored high in either anxiety or depression on the initial
questionnaire had two to three times the risk of developing hypertension
during the next ten years. In whites, the risk doubled only after
the age of forty-five, but in African-Americans, the risk tripled
and was seen in all age groups.
Stress in the form of loneliness can also push up blood pressure.
One study of older people, ages sixty-five to seventyeight, found
that those who were lonely had blood pressures an average of 16
points higher than those who were not lonely.
The Good News
It’s impossible to avoid all of the stressors of life, but
you can do something to lessen their effects on your physical, mental,
and emotional health. One antidote to the stress response is the
relaxation response, which takes you to a deep state of restfulness
while you remain awake. Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind/Body
Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School, developed the relaxation
response as a way to reverse stress-induced damage to the body.
The response taps into an area of your brain that releases and diminishes
your physical responses to stress. When practiced regularly, the
relaxation response can effectively slow your metabolism, decrease
your heart rate and muscular tension, and lower your blood pressure.
By experiencing deep relaxation for just twenty minutes a day, you
can do a lot to relieve your stress and bring your blood pressure
down to a more healthful level.
The relaxation response, also called progressive relaxation, is
easy to do, takes no equipment, and feels great. Just find a quiet,
comfortable place where you can be alone for twenty minutes and
follow these steps:
• Sit in a comfortable chair or lie on a mat on the floor
and close your eyes.
• If you’re lying down, let your arms lie at your
sides. If you’re sitting, let your hands lie relaxed in
• Take a deep breath: Slowly inhale for 4 counts, hold for
4 counts, and exhale for 4 counts. Repeat, if desired, then resume
• Focus on your feet: Relax them completely, letting all
the tension go, until they feel so heavy and relaxed that you
can hardly imagine moving them.
• Then focus on your ankles and repeat the process.
• Gradually work your way up through your body, relaxing
all of your muscles, one by one, including those in your face
• Take the entire 20 minutes to complete the process.
• When you’re finished, gradually begin to wake up
again by wiggling your fingers and toes, and gently shaking out
your arms and legs. You may also want to do some easy stretching.
• Take your time getting up, especially if you’ve
been lying down. Slowly and gently ease yourself back into the
A Better Approach To Smoothing Down Stress?
Although progressive relaxation is an excellent tool for physically
relaxing the body and lowering the blood pressure, a mental form
of relaxation called Transcendental Meditation (or TM) may be even
better. The Indian yogi Maharishi Mahesh first introduced TM to
the Western world back in the 1960s. Now in use by over four million
people worldwide, its effectiveness as a stress reliever is beginning
to be accepted by even the most traditional medical establishments.
In 1995, researchers pitted TM (the mental approach to relaxation)
against progressive relaxation (the physical approach) to see which
was most effective at lowering blood pressure. One hundred twenty-seven
mildly hypertensive African-Americans between the ages of fifty-five
and eighty-five took part in the study. Progressive relaxation worked
well: It lowered systolic blood pressure an average of 4.7 mm Hg
and diastolic 3.3 mm Hg. But TM proved to be the big winner, lowering
systolic blood pressure by 10.7 mm Hg and diastolic by 4.7 mm Hg.
As an antihypertensive technique, TM proved to be about twice as
effective as progressive muscle relaxation. TM is also associated
with a lessening of atherosclerosis, lowered cholesterol, and a
decrease in rates of hospitalization.6 (For unknown reasons, other
forms of meditation haven’t produced such beneficial results.)
More and more, doctors are beginning to realize the value of Transcendental
Meditation as a method for preventing and treating coronary heart
TM is easy to learn, but it takes practice to be able to do it
right. The more you do it, however, the easier it will become. But
first you’ll need to decide on a word or short phrase (such
as “love” or “universe” or “we are
one”) that you’ll feel comfortable repeating to yourself
silently, over and over again. If you take private instruction in
TM, you’ll be given a word (a mantra) to repeat. Either way,
the silent repetition of a word or phrase will induce deep relaxation.
Once you’ve got your word or phrase, follow these steps:
• Find a place where you can sit quietly in a comfortable
position and close your eyes.
• Inhale and exhale slowly but naturally as you silently
repeat your word or phrase. Concentrate solely on your word or
phrase as you try to keep your mind completely blank.
• As thoughts and feelings come into your mind, simply let
them go and return your concentration to your word or phrase.
Stay relaxed; don’t get anxious about these stray thoughts.
Just acknowledge that they are there and dismiss them.
• Continue your repetition for 10 to 20 minutes, then slowly
open your eyes.
• Gently and gradually ease yourself back into the conscious
world before standing up and going on your way.
• Repeat twice a day.
Other Stress Busters
Of course, TM and progressive relaxation aren’t the only ways
to relieve and manage the stress in your life. Exercise is a key
element in stress relief. Deep breathing, yoga, t’ai chi,
qigong, self-hypnosis, aromatherapy, warm baths, prayer, relaxation
tapes, and soothing music are all effective ways of bringing your
blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and breathing down to
lower, more healthful levels. As with any health practice, the one
that works the best is the one you’ll do regularly. And the
one you’ll do regularly is undoubtedly the one you like the
best. So take your pick! Or mix and match. Just do some form of
stress-relieving activity at least twenty minutes every day.
Stress is here to stay. Difficult customers, demanding bosses,
terrible traffic, government scandals, and all the rest aren’t
going away. But what can change is your reaction to the inevitable
annoyances and disasters of life. You can learn to turn off your
overreaction to stress, and blunt its ability to send your blood
Excerpted from WHAT YOUR DOCTOR MAY NOT TELL YOU ABOUT
HYPERTENSION: The Revolutionary Nutrition and Lifestyle Program
to Help Fight High Blood Pressure by Mark Houston, M.D. with
Barry Fox, Ph.D. and Nadine Taylor, M.S., R.D. Copyright ©
2003 by Mark Houston, M.D. with Barry Fox, Ph.D. and Nadine Taylor,
M.S., R.D. Excerpted by arrangement with Warner Books, Inc., New
York, NY. All rights reserved. $14.95. Available in local bookstores
or click here.