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Manage Your Stress for Good Health

By Brenda Conaway
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

We live in a stressed-out nation, according to the American Psychological Association (APA) survey, "Stress in America." Most Americans feel moderate to high stress, with 44% reporting increased stress levels over the last 5 years. Many Americans have experienced stress from financial problems related to the economy. And many have found it difficult to balance work and home responsibilities and find the time to focus on healthy behaviors.

When you're under stress day in and day out, it can take a toll on your physical and mental health. And if you have children, your stress may also be affecting them -- more than you realize. According to the survey, 69% of parents said that their stress levels didn't have a big effect on their children, yet 91% of kids knew when their parents were stressed. So it's smart to learn how to manage stress to ensure good health for you and your family.

Types of Stress

Not all stress is bad for us, says Bruce S. McEwen, PhD, a leading stress researcher and head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University, New York, NY.

  • Good stress, says McEwen, "Is when you are presented with a challenge, you rise to that challenge, generally have a good outcome, and you feel exhilarated," he says. Good stress can help us learn and grow.
  • Tolerable stress occurs when something bad happens, such as a job loss, 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, says McEwen. "And they may be really bad, or you don't have the financial or internal resources to handle them." This type of stress causes emotional and physical problems.

How Your Body Responds to Stress

When something very stressful occurs, your body leaps into action. The brain triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones travel to different parts of the body, putting it on high alert. Your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure increase. Blood vessels constrict, directing more blood to your brain and muscles. These stress responses get your body ready to either fight or flee.

Of course, fighting or fleeing isn't something most of us need to do very often. "Early humans were exposed on a regular basis to many more real-life dangers than we are now," says Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, executive director for professional practice of the American Psychological Association. The problem, she says, is that as we evolved, our world became less dangerous, but our bodies still react to stress the same way.

"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 tells WebMD. The daily grind, family and work conflicts, money troubles, and even world events create a certain level of stress and anxiety.

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