Dr. Thomas Leytham, a family physician at University Physicians Group, outlined some additional details on how certain activities (such as exercising, singing, and journaling) can help your body deal with excess stress.
“One minister expressed to me, ‘If I know how it works, I am more likely to try it and more likely to remember it,’” Dr. Leytham said.
With regard to the improvements in stress symptoms provided by exercise, Dr. Leytham said there are several mechanisms involved – the release of endorphins (which helps us to feel better by blocking pain receptors), improved hormone balance, better sleep quality and controlled breathing.
“When the exercise is combined with a recreational activity there are then the added benefits of socializing with friends, laughter and temporary distraction from our worries,” he said. “There can also be the huge secondary benefit of fewer stressors to deal with due to better overall health.”
Journaling is another healthy measure you can take to improve stress symptoms.
Dr. Leytham said our brains use chemical energy converted to electrical energy in order to operate the most advanced “computer” known to mankind.
“Perhaps journaling,” he said, “helps us to better organize some of the disorderly tasks which our ‘computer’ has never had a chance to fully process.”
Dr. Leytham said that when patients ask him about journaling, he advises them to use a pen and paper as opposed to a keyboard. This technique, he believes, improves the efficacy of journaling by allowing more time to pass between retrieving the memories from the emotional centers of the mind, processing the memories, and converting them into the final physical act of writing.
“This extra processing time probably helps to move the ‘downloaded’ information into a different place in the mind where it is less likely to later cause stress-related symptoms,” he said.
When patients ask Dr. Leytham what they should journal about, he said he usually tells them to write about the thing they want to write about the least. One method, he said, is to write a hypothetical letter addressed to someone in which you describe how a traumatic event in your life has affected you emotionally.
Another format is a simple, “When ______ happened, (or when ______ does _______), then I feel _________.” For example, “when I heard my mother had died, I felt like I couldn’t breathe” or, “when my neighbor called me that vulgar name, I felt like I wanted to crawl under the house and hide.”
A final question is sometimes asked concerning journaling, “What do I do with what I have written in my journal after I have written it?” Dr. Leytham said this varies for each individual. He said some choose to have someone they trust read it – such as a therapist, spouse, doctor or minister. Others just store it away in a safe place (or maybe even shred it).
Dr. Leytham does not automatically recommend journaling for everyone who has had severe trauma in the past because it could trigger flashbacks or panic attacks such as seen occasionally in moderate to severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Therefore, for those patients, he would more likely recommend the patient seek supervision from a professional counselor so that journaling could be considered as one part of a more comprehensive treatment plan.
Another activity that can help with stress is singing, which creates a necessity to control your breathing – similar to the relaxation effects of Lamaze, yoga, and biofeedback.
“Stress can sometimes lead to breathing too rapidly or holding your breath - even if you are not aware of it,” Dr. Leytham said. “Either of these can cause major physical symptoms within a matter of minutes.”
As for where and what to sing, Dr. Leytham sticks with the more obvious answers – sing something you know the words to. “The louder you sing, the more you will force yourself to control your breathing, which is a major point of singing for stress reduction,” he said.
Vacations & Other Activities
One more issue to address when it comes to stress is the topic of vacations. According to Dr. Leytham, Americans take far less time off work than our peers in other parts of the developed world.
“There is little doubt this is a serious problem,” Dr. Leytham said. “For so many of my patients, though, traditional vacations are not a realistic option. However, non-traditional vacations could be just as helpful in terms of combating the negative consequences of excess stress.”
Dr. Leytham said he would place vacations in the same category as other types of “building structure” into one’s life.
“The modern age is ever encroaching upon our personal time and space,” he said. “Computers and cell phones have made it easier to take our work home with us, which often creates an increased expectation of workload and a decreased expectation of personal time. Building structure into your life, no matter how artificial it might seem, is a way to fight back against this encroachment.”
The goal is to designate some time each day – even if only for a few minutes – for things such as:
Dr. Leytham said it is not only daily structure that can help us to fight back against the constant march of stressors into our lives but also weekly, monthly and even annual events can be built into our schedules to do so.
Dr. Thomas Leytham is a primary care physician at University Physicians Group. To make an appointment, call (251) 660-5787.
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