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Manage Your Stress for Good Health

By Brenda Conaway
WebMD Feature

Stress happens to all of us. What matters even more than the stress itself is how you respond to it.

When you're under stress often, or you don't have the resources to handle it, that's bad for you, especially if it leads to smoking, heavy drinking, overeating, or insomnia.

"A lot of things related to stress come down to lifestyle and choices that people make," says stress researcher Bruce S. McEwen, PhD, of Rockefeller University in New York.

Start taming your stress by using the following strategies.

7 Ways to Handle Stress

  1. Start making choices. Commit to the things that are important to you. Say no to other things. This may be uncomfortable at first, but you need to protect your time and energy.
  2. Shrink your to-do list. Focus on the things you can control and that actually have to happen today. That list may be shorter than you think.
  3. Take a breathing break. Sit in a comfortable position, set everything else aside, and just be still for a few minutes. You'll have thoughts, but let them come and go.
  4. Nurture close relationships. Often, we don't appreciate how important friends and family can be for good health, says Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, executive director for professional practice of the American Psychological Association.
  5. Get enough sleep. Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. When you're rested, you'll handle stress better.
  6. Eat well. Choose foods that are good for you. High-fat comfort foods won't fix the problem.
  7. Reach out. Take a stress management class, or talk with a counselor. Don't try to handle all your stress yourself.

3 Types of Stress

Not all stress is bad for us, McEwen says. He describes the three types of stress:

Good stress "is when you are presented with a challenge, you rise to that challenge, generally have a good outcome, and you feel exhilarated," McEwen says. Good stress can help us learn and grow.

Tolerable stress strikes when something bad happens, such as losing your job, but you have the inner resources as well as people you can turn to who help you get through it.

Toxic stress is when bad things happen, "and they may be really bad, or you don't have the financial or internal resources to handle them," McEwen says.

How Your Body Responds to Stress

When something very stressful happens, your brain uses stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to put your body on high alert.

You breathe harder. Your heart beats faster. Your blood vessels constrict, directing blood to your muscles. Your blood sugar levels go up.

You're getting ready to fight or flee, even if you don't actually have to run or defend yourself.

"Even psychological dangers such as the threat of abandonment or loss of self-esteem produce the same physiological response that real, physical dangers present," Nordal says.

Stress management comes down to noticing when you're stressed and backing down your reaction if there's a healthier way to respond to the situation.

Reviewed on August 15, 2014

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