Outsmart the silent killer

Having fun can help reduce stress and increase health

Having fun can help reduce stress and increase health

September 08, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

Maybe it's rolling down a hill with your kids, breaking out the crayons to color or reading a good book.

Whatever is fun for you is what you should do to take a break from the stresses of work, from health concerns or even from family tension, experts say.

For Jane Bowen, 80, who had three stents put in her arteries in June, fun is playing bridge. Sometimes she plays as often as four or five times a week.

"It's very competitive, but it's still fun ... I don't know how my partners feel about it, but I'm really not that serious," said Bowen, of Hagerstown. "I love to win, but if I don't win, I'm not going to get all upset about it."


Brown has fun reading light mysteries such as Agatha Christie novels. She enjoys trying to figure out who did the "dirty deed."

She also plays Scrabble on the computer, e-mails her friends in Florida and elsewhere, takes an annual trip with her daughter, Cindy, and spends lots of time with her three children and four grandchildren.

Bowen's husband, Bob, died five years ago after spending about 10 years in a wheelchair with Bowen taking care of him, she said. Naturally, there was stress in her life. And with the stents, her doctors don't want her stressing out.

So she keeps herself busy with fun activities and exercises at Washington County Hospital's Cardiac Rehab Center, walking the halls or on the treadmill and working her arms out on a recumbent bicycle.

What Bowen finds fun might not be fun for others.

"... What would be fun for one person wouldn't be fun for another," said Patrick Ricker, a mental health counselor and employee assistance program counselor with Washington County Health System's Behavioral Health Services.

For many people, it might not be something they do as much as something they experience that relieves stress, Ricker said.

The stress effect

When you get stressed, your heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase, said Julie Kugler-Bentley, a nurse at Washington County Hospital's Cardiac Rehab Center and a social worker for the hospital's behavioral health services. Faster breathing and heart rate allow blood and oxygen to get to large muscle groups so you can run - the fight or flight response an adrenaline rush provides.

That's good for immediate personal safety, but too much fight or flight response over the long term will cause your anxiety level to hit the ceiling, Kugler-Bentley said. That can cause heart damage and stomach problems such as ulcers, she said. It can just make life miserable.

Stress is a silent killer, Ricker said.

"It seems to me if it's the silent killer, part of the reason it's able to kill is we remain so internally oriented and so silent," he said. "Get interaction with other people and get them chuckling. ... Break that silence. Break the death grip that modern society seems to have on us."

The fun effect

Fun is no laughing matter when it comes to the positive effects it can have on the mind and body. There are psychological studies devoted to gelotology, Ricker said. That's right - the study of laughter even has its own name.

If you're really laughing - not a superficial ha, ha, ha, but a genuine belly laugh - there are real physiological changes going on within the body that decompress that stress, Ricker said.

There are researchers who say the kind of laughter during which it feels hard to breath actually pulls more oxygen into the bloodstream, stimulating the immune system, Ricker said.

A different perspective

One approach to getting rid of stress is to prevent it in the first place by changing the way you respond to stressors, said Ricker and Kugler-Bentley.

"It's not the event that causes me to feel stress. It's what I'm telling myself about the event," Ricker said. Exercise programs such as tai chi or yoga can help break that response because they get the mind off the source of stress and calm the body.

Some people like to repeat a mantra, like "peace," Kugler-Bentley said. "As long as the brain is focusing on what it's doing, it's not focusing on stress."

"Thoughts generate feelings and feelings generate behaviors. If you can manage your thinking, you've got it made in the shade," Kugler-Bentley said.

Another way to calm yourself is to reimagine a fun activity or place, said Dr. Syyeda Syed, a psychiatrist for Summit Health's behavioral health outpatient services at Chambersburg (Pa.) Hospital.

If your most relaxed memories were a trip to the beach and you can't just take a vacation and go, use your memories and five senses to pretend your there. Imagine the water touching your body, the sound of seagulls and the smell of salt air.

Of course, you have to take time out to relax and have some fun.

"Everybody's got time," Ricker sad. "You just have to take a look at your priorities."

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