Palo Alto Weekly

- December 14, 2012

'Tis the season not to stress out

Eat healthy, exercise, take time for yourself, therapists advise

by Pierre Bienaime

While many look forward to the holidays for months, celebrating when their favorite radio station switches to Christmas themes beforeThanksgiving, others hear those melodies and simply start to stress out.

The season's warm atmosphere can belie the pressures of reuniting with extended family and friends, and meeting new additions to these circles.

Fortunately, Palo Alto is brimming with professionals and services that aim to relieve stress year-round.

"My take on stress management is that people don't put into practice what they know is healthy for them," said Ernest Schmidt, a cognitive behavioral therapist based near California Avenue.

"My general advice would be pretty generic, but effective: making sure you're not over-drinking, or staying up too late, or lacking in exercise. Most of us all know how to do these, but the question is of making these choices in the moment."

Cognitive behavioral therapy "started in the '60s. Its more active approach still falls under the umbrella of psychotherapy, but there's a lot of teaching, a lot of interacting and homework assignments."

For a patient with social anxieties, homework can be as straightforward as walking up and down a busy street.

Barbara Cohen is a licensed marriage and family therapist who also specializes in breaking the negative thought patterns that amplify stress.

"We enter the holidays with great expectations," Cohen wrote in a pamphlet on coping with holiday stress. "For many these include the memories of holidays past or the fantasies of what could be." Her biggest piece of advice pertains to keeping these expectations in check, giving from the heart without expectations of reciprocation.

On the pragmatic side, she suggests "bringing a neutral friend or mate to family events (this helps neutralize potential explosive family stuff)."

Allison Shotwell, another licensed marriage and family therapist, shares advice that also involves some foresight.

"Consider what the most important traditions or parts of the holiday are most meaningful for you and put those as a priority, and think about letting go of any other parts that are causing you unnecessary stress," she wrote.

Also important is to put enjoyment on one's schedule, in addition to commitments and duties. This means "scheduling time into your days or weeks to do activities you love, scheduling time to exercise or meditate, giving yourself space to veg out or to grieve, getting a massage, or going into nature."

A more passive, physical method for relieving stress is massage therapy.

At Athletic Edge in downtown Palo Alto, most of sports therapist Christiana Aronstam's clients are athletes, many of whom come in with specific injuries to treat.

Others are "college kids under stress, or your average office worker who spends 10 hours a day behind a computer," Aronstam said.

On the many benefits of massage therapy, she shares that "for one, it lowers your cortisol levels, which are your stress hormones. It increases circulation. And it boosts your white blood cell count, which helps your immune system."

"It is actually effective as a healing tool, as opposed to just being for relaxation and pampering," said Kelly Dent, a massage manager at Watercourse Way on Channing Avenue. She adds that massage therapy can even reduce high blood pressure and inflammation.

Those who decide to treat themselves to a massage should make sure it's not coming from an overworked masseuse. "You don't want to be there at the end of the day when someone is already exhausted," Dent said.

Yoga is another popular way of letting go of stress. Steve Farmer, who owns Avalon Art & Yoga Center on California Avenue, explains the three components of the discipline: "Yoga through postures, yoga through breathing, and yoga through meditation. The three main aspects of yoga, all directly or indirectly affect your stress levels."

Though the popular image of yoga often involves the postures alone, these are means for deeper breathing rather than end goals.

Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School, recently spoke to the power of adopting open, expanded postures even outside of a yoga studio. At a TED talk held in Edinburgh, she shared that shaping our bodies in an assured manner can lead to genuine confidence: Cortisol levels drop as testosterone levels increase.

"Doing controlled breathing exercises is one of the well known, well tested, medically confirmed methods of reducing stress throughout the body," Farmer said.

Editorial intern Pierre Bienaime can be emailed at pbienaime@paweekly.com.

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