This Is Your Body on Stress

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The Right Way to Manage Stress

Most of us just treat the symptoms -- taking an aspirin for a headache or a sleep aid for insomnia -- without focusing on the underlying cause. And even when we do try to relieve the source of our stress, it's usually too little too late: taking a weekend off or squeezing in a brief vacation. What you need is a whole-body approach, but it has to be the right approach, one that has an impact on your actual, everyday life.

Think of it this way: One week away won't help your stress the other 51 weeks a year. Stress is in your life every day, doing its damage. Stress management works only if you make it a daily part of your health routine, like brushing your teeth and getting enough sleep. The best starting point is to take care of yourself. Get used to the idea that everyday stress is inevitable and what matters is how you respond to it. Part of that is mental -- you need to be on top of how you respond to the stressors life hits you with. The rest is physical. A healthy body can weather the ravages of stress better than an unhealthy one. Stress-proof your body by eating the right foods, getting enough sleep, and exercising. Some strategies that can help:

  • Pay attention to your aches and pains. They're early warning signs. One of the first places stress shows up is in the shoulders and the back of the head. That telltale tightness is your body telling you to take action and find an outlet for your stress before it has time to do even more damage.
  • Stay close to friends and family. Stress releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone that's also produced when mothers breastfeed their babies. (Men produce this hormone, too, but while a woman's estrogen enhances the effects of oxytocin, a man's testosterone inhibits it.) Stress causes the release of this "tend and befriend" hormone -- triggering a desire to pull children and friends close. This closeness in turn releases more oxytocin, which actually helps dampen stress hormones. In fact, studies show that breast-cancer patients who join support groups have lower levels of stress hormones. Therefore, when you're stressed out, use women's secret weapon against stress: Call your mom, call a friend, or have some fun with your kids. Stress levels drop when you like the company you're keeping.
  • Choose the right exercise. The body's stress response evolved to help us fight off a threat or run away from danger. Under stress your body sends a spurt of glucose to your muscles to give you a burst of speed and strength. There's also a shutdown mechanism: Once you actually escaped from a predator, you would stop running. Your body would interpret that as "the threat is gone" and shut down the stress response.

    That's why exercise still helps relieve stress. First exercising -- then stopping -- mimics this energy spurt/shutdown reaction. Your body doesn't know that the stress you're trying to escape is an annoying boss or a family crisis. It just processes the fact that you've responded, then relaxed. It doesn't take much. A quick walk, 10 minutes on the treadmill, or a game of tug with the family beagle usually is enough to release your stress and turn down the stress response.

    Make sure you pick an exercise you like. If you loathe slogging away on a treadmill, the activity may actually add to your stress. Something to think about as you devise your mini-escape from the rat race: In actual rodent studies, animals forced to exercise show a surge in stress hormones, while rodents allowed to trot freely on the exercise wheel when they want to have lower levels of stress hormones.

  • Try to gain a sense of control over something. Workers who have little control over their day have more workplace stress than managers with power. While you may not be able to change your job, it still helps to find control where you can. Volunteer for projects at work that interest you. Restore order to a messy kitchen drawer.
  • Laugh it up. You wouldn't think that time in front of the tube would do much for your health, but studies show that half an hour to an hour of nightly television comedy can be a medical plus.

    In an Indiana study, women cancer patients who watched a funny Bill Cosby video had lower stress hormones and higher natural "killer" cell activity (killer cells attack viruses and cancers) than women who watched a tourism video. Laughter pushes cortisol levels down and increases killer cell levels. A California study found similar results comparing those who read with those who watched a funny TV show. Some of the immune-boosting effects of laughter lasted as long as 12 hours after the show had ended.

    In another study, diabetic patients who had suffered a heart attack were "prescribed" a nightly 30-minute regimen of TV comedy. After a year they showed drops in blood pressure, used less medication for chest pain, and had 80 percent fewer heart attacks than a control group that didn't regularly watch funny television.

  • Cuddle your kids. This will make you feel better, but that's not all. It's stress innoculation. Whether a child grows up in a stable, loving home or a stressful environment has a huge impact on his or her ability to cope with stress as an adult.
  • If self-help doesn't help, consult a professional. Though no one can eliminate everything that stresses her, you can try to control the emotional reactions that turn on your stress response. It's not easy, needless to say. Some people benefit from therapy that teaches stress-coping skills. Learning meditation is another way to build calmness into your life. Ask your primary care doctor for advice on finding experts who can help.

Continued on page 4:  Stress Stop: Your Heart


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