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Response to Terror | The Health Impact : Beyond the
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Organic Treatments for Stressful Times

November 05, 2001|BARRIE R. CASSILETH | Barrie Cassileth is chief of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York

Nearly two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all of us--from New York to Los Angeles--are living in a world of heightened fear and uncertainty. We are under great stress. We wake up at night because of it. We look over our shoulder wondering, "What next?"

How do we cope? How do we get a good night's sleep? How can we resume our normal daily lives again, as the president and others have urged us to do? How do we reduce the worry and fear that are natural byproducts of such terrible intrusion and destruction?

Sales of sleeping pills were up more than 25% in the two weeks following the Sept. 11 attack, and sales of anti-anxiety drugs are up nearly 10%. Sleeping pills are fine to help us through an occasional sleepless night. Depending on pills to get a good night's sleep too often, however, does not in the end reduce our stress levels. And, in fact, it could create an addiction that would be hard to break.

There are nonchemical complementary therapies that can help reduce the stress. Some therapies are self-administered; others require assistance. But each may very well help, and they all are noninvasive, inexpensive and effective.

More than a dozen types of mind-body therapies are used to reduce stress and anxiety. These various therapies center on a basic concept: relax the mind, and the muscles follow suit. Relax the body, and anxiety dissipates.

Among the most popular of these is massage. Many readers may relate massage primarily to muscle soreness or athletic overexertion. However, massage, which has been in use for literally thousands of years, has important emotional, psychological and physiologic benefits.

Swedish massage, the most common technique, relaxes muscles that in turn reduce stress. It is used regularly to treat insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, backaches and headaches. A good massage by a trained therapist every week will work wonders in reducing stress and anxiety in most people, no matter what the cause. Shiatsu and light massage produce similar benefits.

Yoga and tai chi also reduce stress. Yoga has been shown to induce physiological change, increase skin resistance (a measure of reduced stress) and produce brain wave activity indicative of relaxation. People who practice yoga on a regular basis typically experience lowered levels of stress and increased feelings of well-being. Some research indicates that it relieves symptoms of anxiety and pain. Yoga classes are available in most communities and on videotape.

Tai chi is a very gentle exercise program that soothes your mind as it improves your body. It combines the use of movement, meditation and breathing to improve health and well-being.

If you're interested in learning more about yoga or tai chi, check the Internet. Among the many sites, you might try are http://www.yogaclass.com, http://mydailyyoga.com, http://easytaichi.com and http://cloudwater.com.

You might also look at a good general fitness and health site, such as http://www.miavita.com). There is ample material on the Web, as well as in your public library.

Although not as popular as yoga, reflexology also may help reduce stress. It is essentially foot massage--a therapy that applies pressure to specific, identified reflex points on the foot. Practitioners claim that reflexology treatments can reduce stress and tension.

Meditation is a great means of managing stress. With meditation, people learn to redirect their attention to the present, reacting neither to memories of the past nor thoughts of the future.

The mental training that meditation provides teaches individuals to be aware of what causes their stress, giving them a sense of control. Positive results are well-documented in the scientific literature. To learn more, talk with meditation practitioners, psychiatrists, other mental health professionals or yoga masters.

Proponents of imagery and visualization claim that using the mind's eye to see oneself in a relaxing place or to rehearse healing can influence the unseen processes of our bodies.

Positive mental images have both psychological and physiological effects, lowering blood pressure and altering brain waves. As the English poet John Milton once wrote, the human mind "can make a heaven of hell." Libraries and bookstores have books and tapes devoted to imagery.

There is also hypnosis and biofeedback. An easier, universal "therapy" is the process of sharing your thoughts and concerns with others. Talk about your feelings with family, friends and health professionals.

Both the airing and the sharing help.

*

Send questions to DrCassileth@aol.com. Her column appears the first Monday of the month.

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