Map Your Stress Points

Here's how to tell how -- and where -- stress is hurting you.
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What stresses you?

We all have stress. Traffic. Taxes. A husband who can't find the dishwasher. Crying babies. Failed relationships. A looming deadline at work. But when stress snowballs, it can take a serious toll on our bodies.

Stress can cause our hair to fall out, our bodies to stop menstruating, our joints to ache. It can lower the effectiveness of vaccines. A recent study by the Harvard University School of Public Health, in Boston, found that a stressful job can be as harmful to a woman's heart as smoking. Another, by Swedish researchers, concluded that women with marital stress are significantly more likely to suffer heart disease.

"The trouble starts when the body is subjected to constant stress," says Richard Shelton, M.D., a professor at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in Nashville, Tennessee. "The fight-or-flight response caused by stress is supposed to be brief. But that's often not the case anymore. Acute stress has given way to chronic stress, which can be harmful."

This kind of constant stress can cause permanent damage by attacking each of us at our particular weak points. It can make us more susceptible to bothersome illnesses, like the common cold, and potentially fatal ones, like cancer. Researchers believe 80 percent of all diseases are linked to or aggravated by chronic stress, says Georgia Witkin, author of The Female Stress Syndrome.

The good news is that as soon as we feel calmer, our bodies begin to repair the problems caused by short-term stress. Just thinking about something relaxing releases hormones that make us feel better. And a few simple things -- a shared laugh, a couple of deep breaths -- can counter the effects of stress. Read on to find out the price our bodies pay for stress -- and how to stem the damage.

How stress affects your body

It takes only a fraction of a second for stress, whether it's thinking about work or a loud noise, to set off a chain reaction that affects everything from our eyesight to the muscles in our legs. The response begins in the brain, where the hypothalamus releases a fight-or-flight chemical called Corticotropin Releasing Hormone (CRH). CRH travels to our pituitary gland, which secretes Adrenocorticotropin Hormone (ACTH), which travels to the adrenal glands on top of our kidneys. The result is adrenaline, a powerful stimulant. In an instant these changes occur: Vision sharpens; hearing improves; the thyroid speeds up; breathing becomes rapid and shallow; blood pressure rises; digestion slows; muscles tense; blood sugar level rises.

Continued on page 2:  Stress points: Brain, eyes, mouth, ears


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