Stress is a part of life, a normal response to demands either emotional, intellectual, or physical. It can be positive if it keeps us alert, motivated, and ready to avoid danger. It can be negative if it becomes chronic, increasing the risk of diseases like depression, heart disease and a variety of other problems.
Managing stress is key to your health. And it isn't so very difficult to do.
When she needs relief from the grind of delivering major proposals, Dana Marlowe, 33, of Washington, D.C., makes some noise. "I cruise right into my toddler’s playroom, and I just jam out with his toys -- the xylophone, the baby piano. I almost have 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star' down," says Marlowe, a technology accessibility consultant.
This kind of casual music-making can short-circuit the stress response, research shows, and keep it from becoming chronic. Stress starts in the brain and then...
The body's autonomic nervous system has a built-in stress response that causes physiological changes to allow the body to combat stressful situations. This stress response, also known as the "fight or flight response," is activated in case of an emergency. However, this response can become chronically activated during prolonged periods of stress, which can cause wear and tear on the body -- both physical and emotional.
Stress that continues without relief can lead to a condition called distress -- a negative stress reaction. Distress can disturb the body's internal balance or equilibrium, leading to physical symptoms such as headaches, an upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, sexual dysfunction, and problems sleeping. Emotional problems can also result from distress. These problems include depression, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety and worry. Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases. Stress is linked to six of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.
Stress also becomes harmful when people engage in the compulsive use of substances or behaviors to try to relieve their stress. These substances or behaviors may include food, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, sex, shopping, and the Internet. Rather than relieving the stress and returning the body to a relaxed state, these substances and compulsive behaviors tend to keep the body in a stressed state causing more problems. The distressed person becomes trapped in a vicious circle.
What Are the Warning Signs of Stress?
Chronic stress can wear down the body's natural defenses, leading to a variety of physical symptoms, including:
Dizziness or a general feeling of "being out of it"
General aches and pains
Grinding teeth, clenched jaw
Indigestion or acid reflux symptoms
Increase in or loss of appetite
Muscle tension in neck, face or shoulders
Cold and sweaty palms
Weight gain or loss
Upset stomach, diarrhea
Irritability, impatience, forgetfulness
Tips for Reducing Stress
People can learn to manage stress and lead happier, healthier lives. Here are some tips to help you keep stress at bay:
Keep a positive attitude.
Accept that there are events that you cannot control.
Be assertive instead of aggressive. Assert your feelings, opinions, or beliefs instead of becoming angry, defensive, or passive.
Learn and practice relaxation techniques; try meditation, yoga, or tai-chi.
Exercise regularly. Your body can fight stress better when it is fit.
Eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
Learn to manage your time more effectively.
Set limits appropriately and say no to requests that would create excessive stress in your life.
Make time for hobbies and interests.
Get enough rest and sleep. Your body needs time to recover from stressful events.
Don't rely on alcohol, drugs, or food to reduce stress. Ease up on caffeine, too.
Seek out social support. Spend enough time with those you love.
Seek treatment with a psychologist or other mental health professional trained in stress management or biofeedback techniques to learn more healthy ways of dealing with the stress in your life.