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Yacht crew beat stressful odds with relaxation

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I used to think I was pretty calm, but after many years working on yachts, the constant pressures of life onboard got to me.

The body responds to stress by going into fight-or-flight mode and releases adrenaline, cortisol and other chemicals that can be harmful to the body and brain. I experienced high blood pressure, anxiety, insomnia, weight gain and depression as a result of the buildup of stress. I had to find a way to reverse the effects to save my health and my sanity.

Regular aerobic exercise is a great way to get the body and mind to relax. Studies have shown that after a good workout, participants rated lower scores for depression, tension and anxiety, and higher scores for elevated mood, memory and energy.

Other less-strenuous activities such as guided meditation and yoga can trigger a relaxation response as well. Although they won’t burn many calories, these mentally active relaxation processes will bring a nervous system back into balance by producing some of the same benefits that follow an aerobic session. Breathing deepens and muscles start to relax. The heart rate slows, blood pressure drops and the body starts to heal. Over time, these long-lasting benefits increase motivation and focus.

Both of these methods can be done in as little as 20 minutes. The trick is to choose the right technique. For those crew who react to stress by getting angry or agitated (the “fight” response), the best way to release stress is things that are calming, such as meditation, yoga nidra, progressive relaxation, and guided imagery.

For those crew who withdraw or become depressed under stress (the “flight” response), the best options are rhythmic exercise, power yoga, and massage.

For those who freeze up under stress, the challenge will be to wake up the nervous system. Those crew should find a system that engages both the arms and legs such as running, lifting weights, or tai chi. Then concentrate on how the body feels as it moves.

Like me, many stews develop insomnia and anxiety. So when lying in a bunk, wide awake, practice mindful relaxation. Guided meditations and yoga nidra will really help anxious stews get the rest they need.

Yoga nidra is a detailed, mentally active process that systematically focuses on different body sections. It is said that 40 minutes of yoga nidra is equivalent to several hours of sleep. You can find dozens of examples of each of these techniques on the Internet and YouTube. Search for “guided meditations for sleep” or “yoga nidra”.

Stress is a part of life on a yacht, but it doesn’t have to control a stew’s life. Develop good habits and choose self-care to be a success. Engage in regular exercise and practice relaxation techniques. Once a yoga or workout routine is memorized, it can be practiced practically anywhere.

Stews are known to be perfectionists, but we can’t obsess about it. When we miss a day or two of practicing these techniques, we have to just get back into the routine as soon as we can. It’s even possible to do deep breathing while at work, to practice mindfulness during a run or a walk, and to meditate before sleep.

Life onboard yachts is fairly structured and many of the day-to-day challenges of being land-based simply don’t exist. So take advantage of this time onboard to create a happy and healthy lifestyle now, before “real life” catches up with you.

Alene Keenan is lead instructor of yacht interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Ft. Lauderdale. She shares her experience from more than 20 years as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht”, available at http://createspace.com/5377000 and on amazon.com. Contact her at info@yachtstewguru.com.

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