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How to Relax (and Lower Your Cortisol Levels): A Golden Key to Your Health
by Mary Maddux columnist Mary Maddux has worked in the healing arts in both conventional and alternative settings. With an MS in clinical social work, she has worked as a counselor, helping people cope with the stresses of life. While working as a hospice counselor, she was introduced to various alternative healing arts. She eventually developed a healing arts practice and has taught many workshops.

She and husband Richard are producers of two renowned CDs, Sleep Easy: Guided Meditation for Deep Rest , and Pure Relaxation: Guided Meditations for Body, Mind & Spirit . Mary is the "voice" of these CDs while Richard, an accomplished composer of music for meditation with 20 years experience, created the music.

Would it surprise you to know that a recent study demonstrated that stress is directly linked to weight gain? Probably not!

I'm sure many of us have noticed that when we feel stressed, we start to eat (or shop, or smoke, or bite our nails, or ... ) What's interesting, however, is that the link between stress and weight gain is not just the tendency to overeat when stressed, but the fact that the body produces a hormone called cortisol in response to stress, and increased cortisol cause the body to store fat! So, even if you are watching your diet, stress can cause you to gain weight!

Don't Sit Still ... Stretch! At home, at the office, or anywhere, simple stretching can do wonders to help you relax.

You can find lots of advice about how to stop overeating in response to stress, but when you feel stressed out, it is very difficult to follow good advice. Some will suggest that you find ways to reduce the stress in your life.

We can do this to some degree, but the fact of the matter is that life in these fast-paced times is stressful.

What we need to do is directly reduce the impact that the stress is having on us, as well as changing how we respond to the stress.

One of the best ways to do that is to learn to relax.

Relaxation's Link to Reduced Weight (and Much More!)

Relaxation is one of the most important keys to good health. It can help lower cortisol levels, and is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress.

In writing this article, I was reminded of the fact that I once had a problem with my weight which, believe it or not, I hardly ever think about anymore. I used to over-eat, snack frequently, and even did some "binge eating" in my time.

Whenever I felt stressed, I would reach for food. What's remarkable is that after struggling with this for years, the problem completely disappeared, and as I look back on it, the key was relaxation.

I didn't do anything specific to change that habit. I simply learned some easy ways to relax and made relaxation a top priority in my daily routine.

As a result, I not only felt better, but I was taking better care of myself and making healthy lifestyle choices quite easily. In fact, there were a number of problems that got better as I became more relaxed and learned to cope with stress -- difficulty sleeping, smoking and much more.

Over and over again, I have seen this same thing happen in the lives of my clients and students as they learn to relax.

Using What You Already May Know

I was very fortunate to learn about the effects of stress and how to relax early on in my life. I started to meditate back when most people had never even heard the word (and also looked at me funny if I mentioned it). I learned other ways, also, to relax, including breathing techniques and yoga. These days, meditation and yoga are pretty much "household words."

Times have changed and we are very fortunate to have this awareness of the effects of stress on health, as well as how to cope with stress.

Usually when I counsel people about coping with stress, I find that they are already aware of ways to reduce stress. They have even tried things already that are very effective for them. The challenge is that they don't use the things they already know.

It can be difficult to change habits, and it takes motivation. Unfortunately, often that motivation comes in the form of a physical condition that has become so uncomfortable or even life-threatening, that we finally take action. I'm hoping to inspire you to take action before developing a major disease.

Just knowing that most diseases are stress-related or stress induced may not be enough, because it is so hard to break old habits. Usually we need to introduce change gradually, a little bit at a time.

Therefore, I'm suggesting below some very simple things that you can start to do to relax. They may seem obvious, and they are, but often the solutions to our problems are right under our nose -- we are simply overlooking them. Try making a habit of doing some of these simple things each day. Even if you start with just one minute a day, get started!

Five Simple Tactics to Help You Relax

Stop and "Do Nothing." Take "mini relaxation breaks" by stopping and doing nothing from time to time.

Give yourself room to "simply be".

Rest is the basis of activity, and those pauses to rest will help you "reset." One woman once confessed that when she got home from work, she liked to "sit and stare at the wall." She thought there was something wrong with her, but I assured her it was her body and mind telling her she needed some complete "down time."

Take a Deep Breath. "Take a deep breath" has become a cliché - you hear it on sitcoms, in conversations, everywhere -- and for good reason. It helps!

Observe the Natural Flow of Your Breath. This is perhaps the easiest way to relax with the breath. Take a break and simply bring your attention to your breathing. Notice how the breath moves in and out, how it feels, how your body moves as you breathe.

Take time to become aware of all the details of the experience of breathing. Not only does this remind you to breathe (is common to have shallow breathing in response to stress), but it can be comforting to connect with this natural rhythm of life. (It's a lot like watching the waves washing in and out at the ocean.)

Lie Down and Rest. Even five minutes of lying down can be refreshing. Don't mind if you feel restless and your mind keeps coming up with reasons to get up.

When you've been revving up the engine on a car, it takes a while for it to come to idle when you take your foot off the pedal. It can be like that when we take time to relax - we need to let the body and mind gradually unwind.

Stretch. Simple stretching can do wonders. If you sit at a computer or do any work that causes you to remain in the same position for long periods of time, it is highly stressful. Stretch your arms and legs, bring your attention to your body and notice how it wants to move naturally. Watch little children before they've been trained to "sit still."

It's natural to move and the body loves it!

Relaxation Expert Mary Maddux's Renowned CD!

"I'd been looking for a CD for our cardiac, pulmonary, diabetes and weight management patients to use on their own to help them practice relaxation techniques. I was delighted to find the Pure Relaxation CD -- it's a winner! The voice and music, combined with the gentle simplicity of the meditations, is extremely effective. Thank you for coming up with a perfect format that can accommodate a variety of schedules, ages, and backgrounds."

-- Sarah Mozelle, MA, CHT Lifestyle Management Coach & Health Educator, Dominican Hospital, Santa Cruz, CA

Read More About Pure Relaxation & Order Now

All of these suggestions are extremely simple and easy to do, and yet it can be hard to shift gears. Therefore, I've created a CD - Pure Relaxation: Guided Meditations for Body, Mind & Spirit - to help people relax effortlessly.

In it I've captured the essence of everything I've learned over the years about how to relax.

It's not a series of instructions giving you yet another thing to do. Instead the guided meditations help you to let go of effort, invoking the body's natural relaxation response.

My voice-guided relaxations are accompanied by relaxing, soothing music thanks to my husband, Richard, who specializes in music for relaxation. It's designed to be an ideal tool for stress-reduction, helping you to relax naturally and effortlessly. Using it repeatedly helps to develop a "relaxation habit" so that you find yourself automatically relaxing during the day.

Your health, appearance, relationships - everything - are affected by stress and how well you cope with it. There are many different strategies for coping with stress.

Each individual is unique, and not everyone benefits equally from all of the different approaches. Relaxation, however, plays an important role in any stress-reduction program.

Try finding ways to relax each and everyday. Even if you start with just one minute a day, get started!


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