Last updated: Sep 23, 2010
woman-green-sweater-stress
Getty Images
I don't know about you, but I've reached my worry threshold. The world around me seems like a giant, roiling mess—what with my plummeting 401(k); my fears that finances will worsen before they improve; and my college loans, credit cards, and mortgages getting harder to come by. And don't even get me started on the election. Yikes! Please, enough already! (And this is coming from a woman who can beat Pollyanna at optimism with eyes closed and one hand tied behind her back.)


I know that unrelenting stress is unhealthy. Stress hormones that drip continually into your system (instead of just occasionally, when they boost your heart rate and speed your breathing to help you deal with immediate emergencies) can suppress your immune system, disrupt your sleep, and trigger inflammation that plays into chronic diseases such as arthritis, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Since I can't wish away my stress, I've decided to deal with it in a positive way. And since I made that decision, I've discovered that by simply admitting I'm really worried—and taking positive steps to lessen my fears—I feel better and more in control. Here's what I'm doing to help reduce the unhealthy effects of the current drama in my life.

Start with a long-term strategy
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is a Siberian herb that herbalists classify as an "adaptogen," meaning it helps your body normalize its response to stress. Other herbs that fit into this group include Asian and American ginseng, astragalus, licorice, cordyceps, and reishi, among others.

In a new UCLA study, 10 people diagnosed with general anxiety disorder (GAD) took rhodiola for 10 weeks. Five of them experienced at least a 50% reduction in symptoms, which included exaggerated worry and tension, headaches, fatigue, sweating, nausea, and hot flashes. Who knew you could worry yourself into hot flashes?

Alexander Bystritsky, MD, director of the Anxiety Disorder Program at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, cautioned me via email that his study wasn't conclusive because of its size and because rhodiola's effects weren't compared to a placebo. He hopes future studies will confirm his findings.


Until then, I'm willing to give it a shot. Leading American herbalist David Winston, of Broadway, N.J., says in his book, Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief, that rhodiola has "significant benefits for the nervous system, and can enhance alertness and reduce fatigue," among other stress-relieving benefits. And in a placebo-controlled study of 89 people with depression (a condition that often coexists with anxiety) conducted last year by researchers in Sweden and Armenia, symptoms of those who took rhodiola lessened significantly.

The rhodiola extract used in the UCLA study was Rhodax, widely available online and in health-food stores. Dose: one tablet, twice a day. If you take a rhodiola tincture, take 40–60 drops, three times a day.

For worry relief right now
  • Do a quickie meditation. A couple of days ago, when deadline and daily news pressures literally made my heart race, I clicked on an audio spa treatment from psychotherapist and guided imagery expert Belleruth Naperstek. It only took a few minutes of listening to her soft, calming voice (which urged me to surround myself with an invisible, protective force) before I actually did feel calmer and less worried. Find more audio spa treatments at healthjourneys.com.
  • Take your iPod for a walk. When my doctor told me that I could drop dead if I didn't start walking, she got my attention. Well, she didn't exactly say the words "drop dead," but she was pretty fierce about my getting a 30-minute walk most days to help bring down my stratospheric blood pressure. So I bought myself a fancy armband holder for my iPod and I set off, earbuds in place. To my utter shock (I really hate enforced exercise!), the half hour melted away. In a few days, I was looking forward to my noontime walk. And soon, I even started to challenge myself, walking faster and going farther. I come home feeling pretty great now, and for the first time in my life, I think I understand what "endorphin rush" means. Three weeks in, I'm hooked on the stress-relieving combo of music and exercise. My favorite walk track? Paul Simon's "Rhythm of the Saints."