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Fitness | KATHY SMITH

You Can Give Yourself a Break From Stress

November 02, 1998|KATHY SMITH

I was feeling a little tired, a little worn out, a little low in spirit. In short, a little blue. The culprit was stress. My husband, Steve, had been on a three-week business trip, and in three days I was due to leave for New York on my own business trip. Thoughts of being away from my family, anxiety over the many meetings I'd be attending, the strain of having to make several important decisions regarding my company, and the deadline pressure of writing this column had all ganged up on me.

As I sat there trying to conjure up the wonderfully light and invigorated feeling I had experienced just a few months before while on vacation, the letter carrier arrived. Coincidentally (or not), in the mail was the October issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter. My eyes fell on one of the stories, about two herbs that have been shown to improve one's spirits. Like me, you've probably heard of St. John's wort, which lately has achieved some measure of fame as the organic alternative to Prozac. But like me, you may never have heard of the other one, kava.

According to what I read, kava is a root that has long been ground up and served as a mood-enhancing beverage by South Pacific natives. Five European studies conducted on people who experience clinical nervous disorders, including agoraphobia, concluded that 300 to 400 milligrams of kava daily for at least four weeks can provide significant relief from anxiety.

Well, as someone who has always been willing to look at the evidence and, if it's convincing, take a chance on something new, I decided to try kava. I drove over to Elixir Tonics & Teas in West Hollywood, which offers several ways to consume kava. I ordered a Kava Pacific Elixir, sipped it slowly--and left feeling, well, wonderfully light and invigorated. The stresses that had seemed to overwhelm me just two hours before were now distant memories. No kidding!

Yet even in my kava paradise, I recognized that when the kava wore off, my stresses would still be there, waiting. There's no such thing as a panacea; life is too complicated, too full of anxieties about family, about money, about work, about love, about--yikes!--the upcoming holidays. What the kava did, actually, was get me out from under the immediate burden and allow me to remember that there are other ways to fight life's ordinary stresses.

Such coping methods are more necessary than you might at first think. Government statistics say that stress is one of the country's major health concerns, with nearly half of all adults experiencing adverse health reactions to it, and even children as young as toddlers being affected. When the body's stress response is activated again and again over a protracted period of time, it strains your system, making you feel fatigued and anxious. Symptoms of stress range from sexual dysfunction to heart attacks.

There are many widely recognized methods for fighting stress, including deep breathing, adequate exercise, sufficient sleep, healthy diet and massage. To that list you can add three less-recognized ways to feel better on your own without pharmaceuticals:

* One, do something fun at least once a week. Whatever incites your laughter and makes you feel glad to be alive--whether it's bowling, fishing, painting, etc.--plan for it so that you have it to look forward to as the stress grips its hardest. If you can do the activity with your family, all the better. It's good for all of you and provides a stronger shelter from the storm.

* Two, confide in someone you trust, someone who loves you warts and all. I don't mean a shrink, though that's helpful too, nor your spouse. No, this special person should be someone you're not paying and for whom the truths you utter will not cause pain. Regular, full-disclosure confessions with a sympathetic ear are an incredible steam valve, if for no other reason than you get to hear yourself voice aloud that which is troubling you. Sometimes, that's all you really need to pop the balloon of oppression hanging over your head.

* Three, redirect your negative thoughts. This one takes some practice, though the habit is well worth mastering. Bad thoughts, like magnets, draw other bad thoughts to them. "Oh, my God, I'll never get that done in time" is often followed by "And then I can't . . ." which eventually leads to somewhere in the neighborhood of "What's the use?" But if you interrupt the impulse after the first negative thought, and turn it around on itself--"Yeah, I'll get it done"--you break the cycle of helplessness that is one of stress' most obnoxious results, and you cause other good thoughts to follow the first. The payoff is a much more optimistic outlook, which in itself is a great stress reducer.

Think about these three techniques--having fun, confiding in a friend and changing your mind-set--the next time you find yourself stressed out. And you might want to try your own experiment with kava. True, it provides only a temporary respite, but it was the perfect remedy for me on a day when nothing seemed to be working.

*

Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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