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For Inner and Outer Beauty: Stress Less

A life filled with beauty from the inside out begins with eating healthfully, including my Top 10 Beauty Foods in your diet, and adding exercise to your daily routine. There’s just one more part of your life that needs attention. You’ll also need to decrease your stress—an inevitable factor in life that detracts from your beautiful appearance and ruins your calm demeanor. In addition to exercise, R & R (rest and relaxation) are key to looking and feeling your best. The more relaxed you are, the better you feel and the more beautiful you look.

Tension Is the Enemy of Beauty

We all know that stress exacerbates skin conditions like acne and that being constantly tired and worried makes people look old. But for many years there was no scientific explanation for this mind/body connection. When a 2004 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed a connection between life stress and looking old, this seemed like a blinding flash of the obvious, but it was a big deal in scientific circles. The study compared biological markers between a group of women who cared for a chronically ill child and a control group of women with healthy children. The study found that the more years of caregiving a woman had experienced, the shorter the length of her telomeres (the caps of DNA protein on chromosomes that are reduced every time a cell divides), the lower her telomerase activity (an enzyme that protects telomeres), and the greater her oxidative stress. Additionally, the telomeres of women with the highest perceived psychological stress—across both groups—had undergone the equivalent of approximately 10 years of additional aging, compared with the women across both groups who had the lowest perception of being stressed.

Stress can contribute to wrinkles and may aggravate skin conditions including eczema and acne. The effects of stress not only can show up in your face, but also around your middle! If you’ve ever gone through half a bag of Hershey’s Kisses without realizing it, you know there is a link between anxiety and eating.

Adding Relaxing Moments to Your Life

Busy lives don’t lend themselves to long periods of relaxation on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis. But the key is not the length of time you incorporate relaxation into your daily life. The most important thing is that you make some time for it, even if it’s very small, on a regular basis. Anything that allows your mind to escape the stresses of life can be helpful in making you feel calm and at peace. In addition to dancing and Pilates, here are some of my favorite stress-reducing activities.

CREATE A RELAXATION ROOM AT HOME. Many spas have relaxation rooms to sit in before and after treatments. It’s great to create a relaxation space at home too. It doesn’t have to be a “room” per se—it can be a space in your bedroom, for example—but the key is having an area at home that is devoted solely to relaxing. You may want to add a really comfortable chair or daybed, put a dimmer on the lights, or have candles on hand—whatever it is that you enjoy and find relaxing. This will give you an opportunity to decompress. The key is not to have too many outside stimuli. Forget the BlackBerry, cell phone, and laptop; this is a time to unwind and clear your mind of distractions and stressors.

MEDITATE. Meditation is a great way to relax, especially if you are under a lot of stress. Research has shown that meditation can lower heart rate and blood pressure and even improve cognitive performance. Important factors to consider when meditating include finding a comfortable place, relaxing your muscles, and focusing on one thing, whether it’s your breathing, an object (a flower or a painting), or even a picture in your mind. You might visualize a peaceful place, like a secret garden. Or you might imagine sitting on a beach in the Caribbean or standing on the summit of a mountain. Meditating for as little as 10 minutes is enough to have a beneficial effect on your stress level. The key is staying focused and not letting any distractions or thoughts enter your mind. This may be difficult at first and may take a lot of time and practice. Being mindful is key.

LISTEN TO YOUR FAVORITE MUSIC. Listening to soothing music can be very relaxing—and slow tempos in particular can induce a calm state of mind. Calming music can slow your breathing and heart rate, lower your blood pressure, and relax tense muscles too. This can be particularly beneficial when you’re getting ready for a tough day at work, if you’re in your car stuck in traffic, or if you’re lying in bed trying to free your mind of stressful thoughts. Music therapy has been shown to be helpful in decreasing anxiety associated with medical procedures: one recent study from Temple University found that individuals who listened to music during a colonoscopy required less sedation during the procedure than those who didn’t listen to their favorite tunes.

GET A MASSAGE. Having a massage is a great way to free yourself of tension, and adding aromatherapy oils such as chamomile or lavender can be particularly beneficial. One recent study found that emergency-room nurses experienced reduced stress levels with aromatherapy massage. The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing, found that at least 50 percent of the emergency-room staff suffered moderate to extreme anxiety. However, this figure fell to 8 percent once staff received 15-minute aromatherapy massages while listening to music. While it may be preferable, you don’t necessarily need a full hour to experience benefits!

TAKE A HOT BATH. Heat relaxes muscles—and taking a long bath can be soothing to the mind as well. Stock up on your favorite bath salts and soaps, get a bath pillow, and decorate the room with candles. You can even create an in-home spa by incorporating treatments like facials into your routine.

TAKE A VACATION. Even when you have a day off, it’s hard to relax if you’re surrounded by all the usual stressors—piles of bills, home repair jobs that need to be done, shopping to do, and all the other obligations of daily life that make your “to do” list go on for two pages. To escape your day-to-day worries, you need to escape your surroundings! For most people, a vacation to a warm climate, preferably on a sandy beach, is ideal. On the other hand, you may have always wanted to go to Alaska. Whether you prefer a no-frills campout or a luxury hotel, do whatever you find rejuvenating. If you can possibly swing it, get away to relax.

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