Balance is key to stress management

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Relax, it's okay to be a type A; There can be joy in stress, says author, as long as there is balance; BEST REMEDIES FOR STRESS

Dr. Kerry Crofton says it's time to give Type As a break. The Victoria, B.C., psychologist and author says Type As have received bad, and undeserved, press ever since two well-meaning California cardiologists noticed two very different behaviour patterns among their patients 20 years ago. While some were low-key and laid back, most were high-energy and impatient. The two doctors dubbed the latter group "Type A" personalities who were not only "overly competitive" but on their way to dropping dead from coronary artery disease at a premature age. The Type As were promptly urged to "re- engineer themselves" into more passive Type Bs. In her new book, The Healthy Type A: Good News for Go-Getters, Crofton says that while being a "hot reactor" to stress is still a risk factor for heart disease, there can be joy in stress, as long as there is balance.

Q: How would you define a Type A personality?

Crofton: We're born with either naturally high energy, a quick- to-react style, or we're born with our nervous system naturally more placid or low key or laid back. As we're conditioned, as we grow and develop, we can manifest these essential energies in a healthy or unhealthy direction.

Q: What's the difference between a "healthy" Type A and an unhealthy one?

A: A healthy type A is a high energy go-getter, someone who likes to get things done, who gets things done, who knows how to pace themselves and to balance their lives. They can respond appropriately in a given situation. We're good talkers, but we can also be good listeners. We're good at jumping in and taking charge, but we can also sit back and let go.

An unhealthy Type A is someone who is kind of locked into this forceful, pushy, hot-headed style and is driven, competitive and impatient, and who always has to be on the go. There's this sort of ingrained drive, this compulsiveness for achieving and winning and being the best.

Q: Who are some famous "healthy" Type As?

A: Mother Teresa. People are really locked into this idea that Type A behaviour is synonymous with being overbearing and hostile. That's absolutely not true. There are many nuns who have devoted their lives to working with the poor. But how many have started worldwide organizations like the Sisters of Charity and been such a strong voice for the poor and such an international dynamo?

The unhealthy examples abound, from the dictators to ego-driven, insatiable conquerors everywhere. This is why it's so important for us because Type A voices are the loudest. Our impact is often the greatest. Therefore, if we can bring more compassion and more sanity and balance, more gentleness to combine with this fire, then we can make wonderful contributions.

Q: How did Type A get such a bad rap?

A: Part of the problem is that it's been presented in the medical literature as a defect, as coronary-prone, a risk behaviour (for cardiovascular disease). The more recent research indicates that one aspect of Type A behaviour, what's called the hostility factor, the hot-headed reactor, is in fact a coronary risk. But other "negative" aspects of Type A behaviour are not. The trick is to find the balance.

A: How do you know when you don't have balance?

Q: I've been counselling As and Bs for 20 years and doing seminars and programs, and I've heard so many people say, 'This lifestyle, all this achieving and acquiring and earning and spending isn't making me happy.' Many people say they're frustrated, they're exhausted, they're overwhelmed, but nobody really seems to be singing the praises of the enjoyment of their lives, the enrichment or fulfilment.

Some unhealthy As push and push to a crisis cue. Chest pains, migraines, their marriage is falling apart or they've lost their job. Earlier cues might be a knotted stomach, a tense or burning pain in the stomach, a feeling of racing in your stomach, clenched jaw, muscles tightening in the back of your neck, or your lower back.

My program talks about what to do, such as a series of relaxation exercises, beginning with deep belly breathing. As As we tend to think unless something's extreme, it can't possibly be effective. It's all or nothing.

Q: How can changing your breathing help give you better balance?

A: High shallow breathing is physiologically connected with the stress mode, and low belly breathing is physiologically connected with the rest mode.

When you're in the stress mode, there are high levels of adrenaline. That puts the heart rate up, the blood pressure up, which causes tremendous wear and tear on your cardiovascular system. It suppresses your digestion and immune system.

The rest mode relaxes the blood pressure, eases the strain on your heart, helps your digestion, helps production of sex hormones, which are much more prevalent and healthy in the rest mode. The immune system is strengthened.

People can shift from stress mode into rest mode simply by changing their breathing. That has a profound effect on every cell in your body. It's a wonderful way to recharge your energy.

Q: What's your advice for someone who's Type A?

A: Not to be guilty about ambition and drive. Not to be worried about the pressure and pace but learn how to take the higher road options when they present themselves, and learn to pause and gear down in moments throughout the day.

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BEST REMEDIES FOR STRESS

Even Kerry Crofton, author of The Healthy Type A, says being too stressed too often can lead to health problems.

Dr. Steve Hotz, a consulting psychologist at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, says that while scientists don't have any evidence to suggest that people are exposed to more stress today than during any other time, what has changed is science's ability to recognize the consequences of constant, chronic stress. One of the most serious is its effect on a person's risk of developing cardiovascular disease. When we're under stress, our heart rate increases, our blood pressure goes up and the liver releases the free fatty acids that are associated with heart disease.You ought to learn to recognize your own stress cues: clenched jaw, tense muscles, feeling edgy. And "gear down" before they become serious.

Home remedies: Reduce caffeine. Exercise (even if it's just two, brisk, 15-minute walks a day). Eat a well-balanced diet (our reserves of certain nutrients can become depleted from too much stress). Ask your doctor to refer you to an expert in stress management.

Drugstore remedies: Anti-anxiety drugs are sometimes used to deal with persistent tension caused by chronic stress, but doctors generally don't recommend relying on medications to deal with daily stress.

Natural health remedies: Crofton recommends immune-boosting green foods, such as algae, seaweed, wheat grass, barley grass, sprouts and alfalfa. Ginseng and St. John's wort can help reduce anxiety, and valerian can help improve sleep. Join a class in relaxation/ meditation or yoga, or see a registered aromatherapist.