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Health & Fitness : Coping With Stress

June 22, 1989|SUSAN CHRISTIAN | Susan Christian is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Stress. The very sound of the word makes the heart palpitate, the stomach cramp and the jaws clench. It seems everyone knows stress, battles stress and, ironically, thrives on stress. "We need some degree of stress in our lives," said Anaheim psychiatrist Dorothy Savarirayan. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have any motivation." You can't totally eradicate it. So the secret to managing stress is not living without it but learning to live with it. Here, then, are some pointers for coping with stress.

NAP AWAY THAT STRESS

On just about every afternoon for the past 10 years, Benjamin Epstein has shoehorned a catnap into his busy schedule.

"It just seems to get me back on track. It's instant stress relief," said Epstein, 37, the vice president of a Newport Beach-based advertising firm.

All he needs, or wants, is 15 minutes of 40 winks. "The process of falling asleep seems to be the magic, more than the actual sleep," he said. "You wake up to a clean slate."

Epstein has become so attached to his post-lunch ritual that he organizes his life around it. "Ever since I first discovered naps, I've always made sure to live within 10 minutes of my office," he said.

When a business appointment prevents him from breaking for Zs, Epstein suffers. "I feel infinitely more tired by 5 p.m.," he said.

It's only natural our energy level takes an afternoon dip. "The human body is predisposed to fall asleep two times during the 24-hour day--one peak between 4 and 6 a.m. and another peak between 1 and 3 p.m.," said Merrill Mitler, director of research for the Sleep Disorder Center at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla. "It's no accident that many Latin cultures have an afternoon siesta. It fits very well with the way the body is built."

However, siestas would be unrealistic for most American employees, Mitler said. "If a worker says, 'It's my human nature to take a nap right now,' his boss might say, 'Well, then, it's my human nature to fire you.' "

While daily naps may be a nice way to calm the nerves, sporadic snoozing can do more harm than good, Mitler warned. "Napping that's done intermittently--one or two days a week--is probably a bad idea. It disturbs the cycle of wakefulness and sleep and can make falling asleep at night difficult. When your sleep cycle gets out of whack, your stress is increased instead of reduced."

STRESSED OUT OVER WORKING OUT

Usually, exercise is considered an antidote to stress--not a cause. But overexercising can become an additional source of stress rather than a relaxer.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the people who are compulsive about athletics are compulsive individuals to begin with," said Peter Reynolds, a Huntington Beach-based orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports-related injuries. "They go at athletics the same way they go at business and everything else. They carry into their exercise the same thought process that got them into trouble with stress.

"Exercise should be done as relaxation--not as another form of competition," he said. "You probably shouldn't have a stopwatch out when you're running. You shouldn't try to run faster and longer each time."

Psychiatrist Martin Brenner, medical director at Community Psychiatric Center, Santa Ana Hospital, said that perfectionism-driven exercisers become agitated over unavoidable disturbances in their routine. "If they like to work out for one hour, but due to business responsibilities can work out for only 52 minutes, that creates stress for them.

"Plus, the time pressure people put themselves under is really a strain--trying to do more and more in less and less time. They carefully jam one hour in the schedule to go to the health club, change their clothes, do their workout, shower, get dressed and go back to work. So instead of relaxing, they're compulsively racing through their routine."

Brenner suggests long, brisk--and silent--walks to reduce stress. "Don't talk. Don't wear headphones. Lose yourself in the exercise," he said. "Boredom is what produces stress reduction."

SHUTTING DOWN A SPEEDING MIND

If you practice meditation in secret for fear your friends will think you're weird, come out of hiding: 16% of Orange County residents use meditation or yoga to reduce stress, according to The Times Orange County Poll.

Brea cardiologist John Zamarra said he has practiced transcendental meditation regularly for 18 years and often recommends it to his patients. "It quiets the activity of the mind, and when the mind relaxes, the body relaxes."

The common prescription for transcendental meditation is twice daily, 20 minutes a stint. TM requires neither chanting nor an unusual posture. "You do it sitting in a chair," Zamarra said. "You're not withdrawing, you're not dull; you're restfully alert. You've gone beyond thought."

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