Strange: Some people like the feel of non-poisonous reptiles slithering across their bodies in spa-like settings, with larger, heavier snakes providing a deeper kneading as they crawl across flesh. But how effective are these creatures at reducing stress? Even snakes’ general pressure on the body can be relaxing, says Kriota Willberg, a licensed massage therapist and an instructor at Swedish Institute, in New York. But what’s missing is a snake’s ability to systematically and selectively apply pressure, and to respond to the body’s feedback. But True: When a patient is stressed out, the neck, shoulders, lower back and lower extremities are often especially tense, says Willberg. Within these areas of tension, multiple layers of muscles are often involved. By incorporating different muscle-relaxing techniques, such as tempo, expertise at palpating, and varying the pressure — skills that are not part of a snake’s repertoire — massage therapists customize their work to patients’ needs. The result is a modality that’s both stress-reducing and therapeutic.
Strange: Stress usually takes its toll on the emotions. When those feelings are repressed, the body — especially the jaw — often clenches. It’s as though you lock down the body part that’s associated with giving voice to your feelings, says Willberg. But True: Massaging the jaw area to help release muscle tension can be a real stress reliever. The key muscles involved with closing the jaw are the masseter, pterygoid and temporalis (the temporalis is attached to the skull at the temple). If, because of stress, the muscles associated with the jaw remain contracted over time, the result can be headaches and other pain syndromes. for self-massage, Willberg suggests placing the four fingers of each hand (don’t use the thumb) over the temples and making light circular motions for about a minute. Then do the same at the jaw area. Increasing pressure according to preference can lead to additional relaxation.
Strange: If a mug of beer calms you down, maybe bathing in a tubful of the stuff — one European brewery offers this service in a beerarium — might destress you even more. Fans of suds-immersion cite beer’s healthy ingredients and skin-softening qualities. But even if you could afford the amount of beer it would take to fill a tub, are the benefits worth it? Beer warmed up to hot-tub temperatures is likely to have calming and muscle-relaxing effects, simply because of the heat of a liquid, which simulates a regular hot-water bath, says Mark Blumenthal, founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, and editor of HerbalGram, a peer-reviewed publication. And, because the heat allows the pores to open, some of the beer’s sedating alcohol content can be absorbed into the blood stream through the skin But True: Beer’s most calming ingredient is hops (Humulus lupulus), an herb known for its sedative qualities, says Blumenthal. However, he says, most of the hops’ bitter acids, which contain these stress-fighting properties, evaporate during the brewing process. However, you can get the benefit of hops without going to a beer spa.
Strange: Ironing is hardly a popular household task. But the repetitive back-and-forth motions associated with that activity may be one of the best stress reducers around. Why? It has a lot in common with meditation, says Deb Shapiro, 30-year meditation teacher, based in Boulder, Colo., and co-author of Be the Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World (Sterling Ethos, 2009). But True: In day-to-day living, people tend to keep their minds busy with a myriad of activities, says Shapiro. When we’re stressed, that busyness is exaggerated. As a result, our heart rate and blood pressure may increase. Meditation helps us become totally present with whatever we’re doing, she says. Even the simple act of breathing in and out — focusing on the rhythm of the breath — can immediately quiet the body and the mind, helping reduce stress, she says. Meditation can be applied to just about every household task — ironing, folding laundry, cutting vegetables — when you focus solely on what you’re doing. “When done with awareness, what is often considered boring and mundane work can actually be a way to develop a quiet and stress-free mind,” says Shapiro.
Shout it out
Strange: Ever since cavemen roamed the earth, screaming and shouting have played a role in helping humans express their frustrations. “The body’s chemistry changes with each bellow,” says Armand DiMele, a licensed social worker and founder and executive director of the DiMele Center for Psychotherapy and Counseling, in New York. “Screaming releases endorphins, the body’s natural anesthetic, and also causes other neurochemical changes, which makes it a great stress reliever.” But True: Although many people can scream spontaneously, says DiMele, many individuals prepare by tensing their arms, shoulders, chest, face and head. He likens this tightening to what typically happens before a boxer takes a punch at his opponent. “The scream is what explosively releases that tension,” he says. An expert in intense feelings psychotherapy, DiMele says you don’t need an open field as a refuge for screaming sprees. Instead, you can scream full force right into a pillow, or bellow in your car. Although his clients do therapeutic screaming for 30 minutes at a time, even a 10-second scream into a bolster helps get rid of pent-up stress.
Strange: Good things often come in small packages, and that’s especially true with haiku. Haiku is a minimalist type of poetry — commonly three lines of five, seven and five syllables — that was invented by the Japanese poet Basho in the 17th century. These short poems are meditations on and responses to nature, such as the beauty of a flower or the seasons, or one’s relationship with the elements, says Kathleen Adams, a licensed professional counselor, and founder and director of the Center for Journal Therapy in Denver. But True: “Attuning ourselves with nature’s rhythms — ocean waves or birds chirping — helps us to modulate our breathing and to breathe more deeply, which helps calm us down,” says Adams, the author of The Write Way to Wellness (Center for Journal Therapy, 2000). “Celebrating the beauty of the world around us is itself a stress buster.” The brevity of haiku makes these poems easy to write and complete, with no formal training required. There’s a sensory association between the beauty that you see, hear or touch, and the words you use to describe it, explains Adams. So the haiku you write becomes a portal that allows you to travel back to the experience. “We make it real when we write it down,” she says.
Strange: Since ancient times, people graced their bath waters with flowers or a brew of herbs and blossoms. The medical properties of herbs and flowers penetrated the skin, and the fragrance, which could awake the spirit, was also healing and helpful to energy flow, says Aimee E. Raupp, a licensed acupuncturist in New York. This is an approach which can help alleviate stress symptoms, she says. But True: Fragrances affect the limbic area of the brain, which is associated with the emotions. Today, easily available essential oils can serve as a substitute for actual plants. Calming lavender and invigorating peppermint are relatively inexpensive essential oils. Raupp suggests using a few drops of either in one’s bath water. Another way to use them is to put a drop or two in a carrier oil, such as almond or apricot kernel, and massage the mixture in the area of your temples. Because essential oils are absorbed through the skin, one can make larger portions to use as an after-bath oil.
Strange: When you’re under a lot of pressure, the body releases hormones that cause the sympathetic nervous system to go into a stressful fight-or-flight mode. But simply brushing the skin with a dry brush, before you bathe, can help reverse the upheaval, says Laurie Steelsmith, a licensed naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist in Hawaii. But True: Dry brushing stimulates the superficial nerve endings in the skin. This stimulation activates the parasympathetic nervous system which, in turn, can then restore calmness, says Steelsmith, the author of Natural Choices for Women’s Health (Three Rivers Press, 2005). There’s another benefit. Dry brushing moves the lymph, which carries the body’s cellular debris into the blood stream for eventual delivery to the liver for detoxification. When people are laden with toxins, they tend to be sluggish, agitated, and prone to headaches and bad moods. The less the toxic load, the better a person can cope with stress. A quick brushing in the morning — with a dry natural-bristle brush, and using upward or circular strokes toward the heart — can be great way to keep stress at bay. Steelsmith advises using a brush that’s soft enough to encourage habitual use.
Strange: Stress typically causes tension in the body, resulting in blocked energy flow. Acupuncture is a more than 2,000-year-old healing system using needles on energy paths called meridians. And when you penetrate certain locations on these channels that may be blocked, the needling improves blood flow to that area, which helps release endorphins, the body’s feel-good substances, says Raupp. But True: In a person suffering from stress symptoms, the liver meridian is generally affected. “The liver channel is associated with anger, irritability and frustration, emotions that we associate with stress,” says Raupp, the author of Chill Out & Get Healthy (New American Library, 2009). Every patient with these symptoms may receive different needling. However, she notes, a key point on the channel is Liver 3 — it’s between the webbing of each foot’s big toe and second toe — referred to at “Big Rushing,” because of the surge of energy associated with it. Raupp suggests people with stress symptoms work that often tender point with their fingers.
Strange: Before the invention of electricity, people woke up at sunrise and went to bed at sunset. Today, even when we do hit the sack, we often take the light to bed with us. Television and computer monitors are left on. Night lights and clock faces glow. Curtains or shades made of flimsy material let light from the street penetrate into the bedroom. This extra dose of light takes a toll on the body, says Steelsmith. The production of melatonin, a powerful sleep-inducing hormone made in the brain’s pineal gland, decreases when the night is not pitch black. And less melatonin can mean more stress. But True: Research suggests that, when melatonin levels decrease, so does the quality of sleep, says Steelsmith. Insomnia and sleep disruption can also occur. A lack of restful sleep may also lessen a person’s ability to effectively cope with daily problems or mishaps, which could lead to stress and also adversely affect the immune system, she says. Steelsmith suggests that people lower the lights an hour before retiring, remove light-containing items from the sleeping area, and put up heavy curtains. Another alternative is wearing a sleep mask, both at home and during travel.
Strange Food Trend: Meat-Flavored Chips
Potato chip companies think they’ve figured out what Americans like best: meat. More specifically, processed meat. Two companies have released new chip flavors to satisfy the carnivore on the go who can’t be bothered to pick up the real thing: hot dog and beef jerky. Though our neighbors to the north, Canada, and England have long been the proud eaters of meat-inspired chips with flavors like roast beef and roast chicken, they are a fairly new addition to US shores. But they are quickly becoming a growing phenomena. Herr’s has Kansas City Prime Steak– and Baby Back Ribs–flavored chips; Pringles offers a Blastin’ Buffalo Wing chip; and Doritos produces a Cheeseburger variety of its potato snack. Now, you can add 7-Eleven and Rowan Lane to the list of carnivore-friendly snack makers. 7-Eleven’s newest accompaniment to the Slurpee? Hot dog–flavored chips. The flavor is meant to mimic that of the convenience franchise’s Big Bite hot dog, according to Gothamist. If you like your hot dog chips plain, you’re out of luck, the chips include ketchup, mustard, and relish spices that “top” them. (Unfortunately there are no tomato or poppy seed bun spiced chips for fans of the Chicago-style dog.) While 7-Eleven’s new meaty snack does not actually contain any real meat product, another meat chip on the market does. Rowan Lane’s Cherkees chips are what happens when beef jerky meets potato chips. According to the packaging, “These are NOT beef jerky flavored potato chips. Cherkees are real beef jerky AND potato chips AT THE SAME TIME.” The chips contain bits of actual beef and are meant to retain the crunch of a chip with the flavor of jerky. Cherkees, which can only be bought online right now, are available in Cracked Pepper and Hot Pepper, but according to Gizmodo, Teriyaki and Smokehouse are on the way.