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Posted: July 19, 2007

Spousal Caregiving

Stress Reducing Techniques That Work

Bill Andrew

In my last column, I told of a short course on recognizing and coping with caregiver stress and depression that was presented by a cognitive aging psychologist to the Alzheimer's support group I facilitate here in Winter Haven, Florida. Then, I found that a recent Harvard Medical School publication, HEALTHBEAT, featured a story on "stress reducing techniques that work," and I wanted to share that information with the readers of this column as a follow-up.

The most recent National Vital Statistics Report lists the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States -- and you will not find the word "stress" anywhere in that report. Still, many respected studies link stress to both heart disease and stroke -- two of the top 10 causes of death. Other studies indicate that stress may also influence cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases -- also in the top 10.

Stress has potential implications for many other ailments, as well. Depression and anxiety, which afflict millions of Americans, can be caused or exacerbated by stress. Stress can also trigger flare-ups of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and gastrointestinal problems. And such illnesses may be just the tip of the iceberg -- stress can affect you emotionally as well, marring the joy that you can draw from life and your loved ones.

Causes of Stress

During your lifetime, the odds are good that you will experience very stressful events on occasion which can lead to chronic stress. You will also face many smaller day-to-day stressors. How you deal with these stressful events -- big and chronic or small and occasional -- will determine the potential impact on your personal physical health and emotional well-being.

A number of years ago, several psychiatrists at the University of Washington devised a scale for researchers that weighed the stress of major life events. The death of a spouse -- which ranks the highest -- was later shown to have a serious impact on the health and well-being of the surviving spouse.

Although most of the events on the scale would be considered traumatic, many life events are not obviously negative by nature. An outstanding personal achievement, such as a new baby or a marriage, may seem like cause for celebration with positive impact. But many life events can be construed as being either uplifting or upsetting -- or perhaps a bit of both.

While most stress symptoms may seem obvious, many can be more subtle. The first line of defense is to recognize that certain physical and emotional changes may indeed be caused by stress itself. Although most folks may attribute headaches, sleep disturbances, or irritability to stress, less obvious symptoms can include ringing in the ears, a frequent urgent need to urinate, and difficulty swallowing. Understanding the many ways that stress can manifest itself in physical and behavioral symptoms, and identifying the triggers for stress, are the first steps toward achieving relief.

Stress is caused by many trigger events -- some obvious and some not so obvious. There are almost as many techniques, practices, and treatments for dealing with stress as there are causes. From ancient relaxation techniques to the latest thinking on proper nutrition, from breathing exercises to repetitive prayer, we have numerous tools to help us to cope with stress. Some of these techniques can be especially beneficial under certain circumstances but not as helpful under others. Understanding what works for you as an individual, and within the stressful circumstances at hand, may require exploring a number of stress-reduction methods until you find the one that works best for you. This is not an area where "self-help" works best; it is important to know when to seek professional help. Yet, these efforts can help you to achieve better health and well-being, greater peace of mind, and a smoother course through your life as a caregiver.


Mini-relaxations can help allay fear and reduce pain while you sit in the dentist’s chair or lie on an examining table. They’re equally helpful in thwarting stress before an important meeting, while stuck in traffic, when faced with people or situations that annoy you, or during your caregiver day. Here are a few quick relaxation techniques to try to relieve your stress:

When you have one minute: Place your hand just beneath your navel so you can feel the gentle rise and fall of your belly as you breathe. Breathe in slowly. Pause for a count of three. Breathe out. Pause for a count of three. Continue to breathe deeply for one minute, pausing for a count of three after each inhalation and exhalation. Or, alternatively, while sitting comfortably, take a few slow deep breaths and quietly repeat to yourself "I am" as you breathe in and "at peace" as you breathe out. Repeat slowly two or three times. Then feel your entire body relax into the support of the chair.

When you have two minutes: Count down slowly from 10 to zero. With each number, take one complete breath, inhaling and exhaling. For example, breathe in deeply saying "10" to yourself. Breathe out slowly. On your next breath, say "nine," and so on. If you feel light-headed, count down more slowly to space your breaths further apart. When you reach zero, you should feel more relaxed. If not, go through the exercise again.

When you have three minutes: While sitting, take a break from whatever you’re doing and check your body for tension. Relax your facial muscles and allow your jaw to fall open slightly. Let your shoulders drop. Let your arms fall to your sides. Allow your hands to loosen so that there are spaces between your fingers. Uncross your legs or ankles. Feel your thighs sink into your chair, letting your legs fall comfortably apart. Feel your shins and calves become heavier and your feet grow roots into the floor. Now breathe in slowly and breathe out slowly. Each time you breathe out, try to relax even more.

These tips were excerpted from Stress Management: Techniques for Preventing and Easing Stress published by Harvard Health Publications. The report draws on the expertise of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and its Harvard Medical School staff. Click here for more information or to order this special report online. Reading it will help you to identify triggers for stress in your own life as well as to understand the ways in which the stress response affects your body. Of course, before you use any of the techniques described above or in this special report, you should first consult your doctor.

Your thoughts and comments about the above would be appreciated. Drop me a line at and I will share them with other readers in a future column. Please provide your full name and address. In the column, I will only use your first name and the last initial of your last name as well as your city and state. Thank you.


"Hear the prayer of your servants,

for you are ever gracious to your people."

Sirach 36:16

Bill Andrew identifies himself as a former “nutritionally-empowered Alzheimer’s caregiver” who attributes the slow-down in progression of Alzheimer’s disease in his wife, Carol – and the growth of his own personal emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual capability and strength to provide quality 24/7 care for her in their own home – to the targeted nutritional supplements they both took on a daily basis. Carol went to her Heavenly reward on June 9, 2008 – Bill continues on to advocate for family caregivers. Contact Bill with your caregiving questions and comments via email at

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