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Health & Balance

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Trying To Do Too Much?

Good stress, bad stress

Multitasking, almost by definition, involves stress-which means the brain signals the body to begin the rapid-fire release of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol. Of course, stress is not always a bad thing. You need your brain's stress response to help you perform well under pressure, says Esther Sternberg, M.D., author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions, and a leading researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health. It's what gets you out of danger or past that deadline. But if you multitask continually, Dr. Sternberg warns, "your brain and your body don't have time to recover from that rush of cortisol. And that can make you sick."

Here's why: Cortisol is also the body's most potent anti-inflammatory drug. And if too much of it is pumped out continuously, "your immune cells are not going to be able to fight infection when they need to," explains Dr. Sternberg. Cortisol overload, she adds, can contribute to serious medical problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

And that's not all: Over time, say experts, stress can kill neurons in precisely the area of the brain that multitaskers rely on: the prefrontal cortex, which helps you switch between tasks and stores key memories.

Finally, the stress of multitasking may also impair your ability to concentrate. "We've so trained ourselves to be ready for interruption that we're not paying attention to anything," Dr. Hallowell maintains. "The two things that people think they have these days-but don't-are attention deficit disorder (ADD) and Alzheimer's disease. They're just overloaded from a severe case of modern life."

Cell-phone peril

Dr. Hallowell's description would seem to apply to Michelle Silverman, who has turned multitasking into an extreme sport. Every weekday morning, Silverman, 33, a lawyer and new mother from central New Jersey, gets into her Volvo sedan, veers onto the highway, and pulls out her cell phone, BlackBerry, and breast pump. As she slides into traffic, Silverman punches out e-mail messages and holds a conference call with clients, while simultaneously affixing the pump to her right breast and plugging it into her car adaptor. "I know I'm not alone," says Silverman, referring to her behind-the-wheel high-wire act. "Why else would they make breast pumps with car adaptors?"

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