How to Manage Stress
by Barbara Altman Bruno, Ph.D.

Despite what all the diet ads proclaim, life wouldn't be perfect even if we or our partners were thin. Stress is an unavoidable part of living. And Dimensions readers know that the stress of being a stigmatized size can be enormous. Fortunately, there are many ways to cope with stress. Some of the ways take no extra time, and some involve a lot of forethought. When we are stressed, adrenaline starts pumping, our heartbeat races, our breath gets shallow and rapid, we are on edge. This "fight or flight" response goes back to the days when we had to spot the saber-toothed tiger before we became its supper. Our bodies had to prepare us to hunt or be hunted.

In our modern life, events such as going to the doctor, taking an exam, going on an airplane trip or to a NAAFA convention, getting harassed or getting married can all bring up the stress response. Surprisingly, both good and bad events can evoke it.

The simplest way to cope with stress is to remember to breathe! Taking a few slow, deep breaths will counteract the stress response. You can experiment with this right now. Rate your stress level now, on a scale of one to 10. Now, take a few slow, deep breaths. Inhale, hold, exhale. After a few deep breaths, measure your stress level again. Chances are, you are more relaxed. Remembering to slow and deepen our breathing takes no extra time and yet rewards us instantly. Of course, if you cannot breathe fully because your clothing is too tight, you are adding unnecessary stress to your life. We are no longer required to dress in too-tight clothing or "bullet-proof polyester" garments. You can scan the clothing ads in this magazine or others to locate comfortable clothing that fits your or your partner's body and budget.

Some people do each part of the breathing to a count of three, four, or whatever is comfortable. Experiment to determine which count is most suitable for yourself. You have probably heard people speak of the health and stress-reduction benefits of meditation. Simply breathing and counting is a form of meditation. Whenever you notice your mind has wandered, bring it back to breathing and counting. Focusing your thoughts in this way, especially when done for a couple of 20-minute sessions a day, can even lower your blood pressure without taking medication.

Another simple way to meditate involves noticing your thoughts and sensations without engaging with them. So, for example, if you closed your eyes to meditate and heard any kind of sound, you could say to yourself, " ears." If you saw anything in your mind's eye, say "eyes." If you thought about something, say "thought/s." What we tend to do is have a thought and react to it. Instead, notice that you are having a thought or a memory, without getting into the details or emotions of it. If your knee twinged or your stomach rumbled, just note "knee" or "stomach." Get the idea? You can again measure your stress level both before and after practicing a few minutes of meditation. A little practice may be required, and it is ideal to meditate a couple of times daily. The rewards include improved physical and mental wellbeing.

Many people react to stress by clenching parts of their bodies. Two places where we commonly clench our bodies are between our eyes and at the hinges of our jaws. If you notice that you are frowning or furrowing your brow, imagine allowing your forehead to relax. If you notice your jaw is clamped shut, allow it to ease open. Unclench your teeth. You can move your lower jaw from side to side to help it relax. Some people gnash their teeth during the day and some when they sleep. This is called bruxism. The gnashing can cause dental problems, and either type of clenching can give us headaches. Whenever you remember, check in with your brow and your jaw. If they are clenched, let them release. You can massage them lightly with your fingers.

We can also create headaches by hunching our shoulders, another common stress response. If you notice that your shoulders are nearly pushing your ears up, it is definitely time to relax! Take a few deep breaths and deliberately hunch and then lower your shoulders. Rotate them and your arms forward a few times and then back a few times. Notice if you hear any cracking noises as you release the muscle tension (if so, there's nothing bad happening). To help ease your neck, look over your right shoulder and then your left one, a few times each. You can swing your chin from one shoulder slowly across your chest to the other and back again a few times. Try lowering each ear to the shoulder nearest it, and holding the stretch for a count of five or longer. For this stretch, just remember to keep the shoulders down, rather than raising them to meet your ears.

If stress is keeping you from falling asleep at night, or you notice that you are extremely tense, you can (paradoxically) release tension by exaggerating it a bit. Try clenching your toes, lower and upper legs, and buttocks, holding the clench for several seconds, and then releasing it. Likewise, clench your stomach and genitals and hold your breath, then release them. Clench and then release your fists, arms, and shoulders. Then frown, grit your teeth, and scrunch up your face as tightly as you can-and then release the tension. Your body will probably feel more relaxed.

There are many other ways to relieve stress. But if you spend a few moments practicing these simple methods whenever you notice you are tense, you will feel better-regardless of your or your partner's size, cultural sizism, or any of the other stressors that are just part of being alive. ß

Well Being