Everyone can think of a time when he or she has been stressed, whether briefly or for months—even years—at a time. Unless it is managed and mitigated, emotional stress can have definite physical effects.

Chronic stress depresses the immune system, slows healing and may contribute to diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Scientists are beginning to understand the specific cellular mechanisms that are related to stress, and it’s clear that some people are better able to adapt and manage stress than others. Yet there are things everyone can do to help control stress and prevent it from taking a toll on health.

“It’s been shown that physical activity produces endorphins in your body that help you feel better,” says Heath Norton, owner of Title Boxing Club in Rock Hill. “The workout that we have here, which is kickboxing, gives people the opportunity to physically take out their stress on an inanimate object.” Norton says it’s not uncommon for clients to tell him they’re thinking of a particular person or situation as they aggressively punch and kick the heavy bags.

Norton himself understands all too well. Before owning his business, he worked in investment sales and kickboxed his way through highly stressful periods in his professional life. “Every time I went to a kickboxing class, I felt better and had a sense of relief afterward,” he says. He adds that the friendships made in class provide social support, another important component of stress management.

Personal trainer Joe Olivastro, owner of Joe Olivastro Exercise in Ladue, agrees that exercise is good for stress reduction but cautions against going overboard. “Too much or the wrong kind of exercise or inadequate rest time can lead to overtraining,” he says. “Overtraining is as dangerous a stressor as anything the world can throw at you. The current ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) guideline for a healthy lifestyle is 30 to 45 minutes, three to five times a week. If you haven't exercised for some time, check with your doctor first, and then start small.”

Like Norton, Olivastro sees both physical and emotional benefits to a regular exercise routine. “Regular exercise actually strengthens your body, improving your sleep and boosting your circulatory and immune systems. Since these are the very things that the stress response attacks, regular exercise becomes a form of preventive maintenance,” he says.

The emotional effects occur as people begin to feel better about themselves through a satisfying exercise regimen. “As we set ourselves exercise plans and goals, and stick to them, we start believing in ourselves more,” Olivastro notes. “This can translate directly into the way we deal with the stressors in our life. If we feel more in control, the stressors become less powerful.”

Although regular physical activity is key, there is a whole host of other things that we can do to help decrease stress. Dr. Kristin Milonas, a chiropractic physician and acupuncturist in Clayton, advises patients to pay attention to the things that make them feel good and then surround themselves with those things on a regular basis. For instance, we can’t be at the beach all the time, but if the ocean makes you feel relaxed and happy, then introduce seaside elements into your environment to remind you of those feelings.

Acupuncture is beneficial for balancing energy flow in the body and helping people regain a sense of ease, Milonas says. “You can benefit a lot from a single treatment,” she notes. “But one session can be profound for one individual and only the tip of the iceberg for another. It depends on the person, and it depends on the condition that person is coming in for. But with stress, people definitely feel immediate relief.”

Milonas also recommends healing-touch therapy, massage, breathing exercises, meditation and counseling as adjunctive strategies when needed. Nutrition is another important factor, she says. She suggests eating small servings of healthy foods throughout the day to help regulate blood sugar and limiting caffeine intake.

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