Living With Polio
Stress Reduction Ideas
“Promoting Positive Solutions,” Post-Polio Health, Volume 29, Number 3, Spring 2013
Question: I am a 79-year-old male who had mild polio. At every annual medical visit, my doctor urges me to manage my stress and feels strongly about meditation. I have tried it and don’t like it. Sitting in a room, closing my eyes focusing on my breathing feels boring, and I don’t get it.
I have read many articles pointing to the health benefits of meditating, but I can’t get into it. Is there another approach to stress management that has the same evidence base in terms of effectiveness?
Response from Stephanie T. Machell, PsyD:
As you’ve discovered with meditation, it doesn’t matter what the evidence base says: the best stress management technique is the one you’ll do! It sounds like you’ve done your research, and so you know that the reason meditation works is because it “resets” your nervous system such that you become less reactive and more reflective.
Being less reactive to stress helps your body because when you react, the sympathetic nervous system pumps out adrenaline. Once the threat is past, the parasympathetic nervous system pumps its own chemicals to clean up the adrenaline. It takes nine times as long for this cleanup to happen – and it results in additional muscle pain and fatigue, which someone with even mild PPS cannot afford.
Meditation is especially effective at accomplishing this.
There is no right or wrong way to meditate and many different techniques. If what turns you off is the silence, solitude and eyes being closed, you could try keeping your eyes open and doing it in a pleasant place outdoors. Meditating with others in a class at your local hospital or senior center creates a very different experience. Or you could use one of the many available tapes or music.
If meditation itself is the turn-off, there are other things you can do to reduce your stress that have a good evidence base. If you are able to do so, deep breathing takes very little time and can be done any time anywhere. You can learn to do progressive muscle relaxation or visualization exercises from a tape, a book or a class. Autogenic training, which combines a body scan with specific relaxation techniques, appeals to some people.
There are more active approaches to managing stress as well. If you are able to do it, exercise, especially gentle yoga, has been found to be beneficial. Attending religious services, engaging in social activities, doing volunteer work, spending time with friends and loved ones or engaging in a hobby all reduce stress. For those who love animals, research shows spending time interacting with them has health benefits. Writing, especially journaling, is another technique that has a good evidence base. Getting out in nature, even if it’s only your own backyard or looking at a beautiful view from the comfort of your car, has also been proven to reduce stress.
If none of the above appeals to you, how about laughter? Laughter yoga, where groups of people gather and laugh for an hour (really!), is an up and coming stress reduction technique. Watching funny movies or television shows, listening to comedy or reading humorous books is a stress reduction technique most people enjoy.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that if your stress levels are extremely high and you are having difficulty managing them on your own, you might want to see a mental health professional for a consultation. In addition to talking about the issues that may be causing your stress, he or she can help you learn effective stress management techniques.