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Many techniques can help ease stress during holidays

| Monday, Dec. 19, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Scents used for aromatherapy are displayed inside of the Wellness Suite inside of Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside on Dec. 8, 2016.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Scents used for aromatherapy are displayed inside of the Wellness Suite inside of Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside on Dec. 8, 2016.
Patricia Adkins receives a massage from therapist Nicole Remic inside of the Wellness Suite inside of Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside on Dec. 8, 2016.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Patricia Adkins receives a massage from therapist Nicole Remic inside of the Wellness Suite inside of Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside on Dec. 8, 2016.
The lobby of the Wellness Suite inside of Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside on Dec. 8, 2016.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The lobby of the Wellness Suite inside of Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside on Dec. 8, 2016.
Patricia Adkins receives a massage from therapist Nicole Remic inside of the Wellness Suite inside of Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside on Dec. 8, 2016.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Patricia Adkins receives a massage from therapist Nicole Remic inside of the Wellness Suite inside of Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside on Dec. 8, 2016.
Scents used for aromatherapy are displayed inside of the Wellness Suite inside of Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside on Dec. 8, 2016.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Scents used for aromatherapy are displayed inside of the Wellness Suite inside of Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside on Dec. 8, 2016.
Patricia Adkins receives a massage from therapist Nicole Remic inside of the Wellness Suite inside of Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside on Dec. 8, 2016.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Patricia Adkins receives a massage from therapist Nicole Remic inside of the Wellness Suite inside of Hillman Cancer Center in Shadyside on Dec. 8, 2016.

Despite all of the celebrations, many people rank the month of December as one of the most stressful months of the year.

Stress isn't good for us — in addition to causing insomnia, headaches, and sore muscles, stress also can contribute to anxiety and depression and has been linked to heart disease and cancer.

“One of the most effective, data-supported techniques to reduce stress is deep breathing, or breathing from the diaphragm,” says Maria Christina, a licensed professional counselor with Pittsburgh Psychotherapy Associates. “Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, the ‘rest and digest' counterpoint to our ‘fight or flight' response. As we breathe deeply our pulse rate drops, muscles relax, and digestive enzymes flow more freely, releasing those knots in our stomachs and relaxing us physically and mentally.”

With chronic stress, Christina notes, it also is important to examine the causes and work to address them. While relaxation techniques such as deep breathing can benefit just about anyone, stress reduction isn't one-size-fits all, she says.

“No one technique works for everyone,” Christina says. “Exercise, music, spending time with friends, enjoying our pets — these can all serve as effective, stress-reducing activities.”

Dr. Alicia Kaplan, a psychiatrist who specializes in anxiety disorders, focuses on the ways stress impacts the gastrointestinal tract at Allegheny Health Network's Functional Bowel Center.

“While chronic stress causes body aches and anxiety in some, others have a more ‘gut-level' response,” Kaplan says. “They might get nauseous or have to go to the bathroom because in acute survival mode, our body doesn't want to have to do deal with food. It wants to lighten the load to be ready for fight or flight.”

Kaplan teaches patients with irritable bowel disease how to reduce bodily stress through techniques such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, which involve tensing muscle groups throughout the body and then relaxing them for twice as long. She also employs visualization techniques.

“When we're stressed and anxious, our minds often go to the what-ifs or worst-case scenario,” Kaplan explains, “so our imagery is very powerful. If we replace that negative imagery with something more soothing or warm or compassionate for ourselves, that can really help us relax.”

That can be as simple as visualizing soothing ocean waves and re-examining a stressful life situation from “a calm, non-judgemental stance,” she says.

Dr. Lanie Francis, a hematologist and medical oncologist who manages the Integrative Oncology program at UPMC's Hillman Cancer Center, helps a stress-prone patient population find calm.

“When we think about stress, there's probably nothing more stressful then the diagnosis of cancer,” Francis says. “There's just so much unknown.”

Francis works with cancer patients to address stress-related symptoms such as pain, insomnia, fatigue, and depression within the context of conventional cancer care through therapies such as yoga, meditation, oncology massage, acupuncture, nutrition, and aromatherapy to help promote “whole person” healing.

“There really is a lot of science and truth behind the fact that stress affects the body and the mind,” Francis says. “The inflammation and the chemicals released due to stress can affect the body's response to healing and repairing. Learning to de-stress can help people more successfully get through treatment without getting overly anxious or overly fatigued.”

Francis says deep breathing and mindfulness exercises are powerful tools anyone can use for stress-reduction at home, and while it's healthy to occasionally “unplug,” technology can actually be helpful.

YouTube and a number of smartphone apps offer a broad range of guided meditations, visualizations, and deep breathing exercises. Francis has worked with the creators of one such app to develop a mindfulness mobile site specifically geared towards reducing stress for cancer patients.

“These options offer sustainable, low or no-cost solutions to very common problems,” Francis says. “If we can give people tools that empower them to use their own internal coping mechanisms to manage stress, that's a really great way to use technology to our benefit.”

Kristina Marusic is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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