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Stress doesn’t have to wreak havoc on your life. Make it work for you.

Tight deadlines, unpaid bills, angry coworkers.  In today’s 24/7, go-go-go world, stress is unavoidable – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“The body’s stress hormones, particularly cortisol, give us the power to get up and go in the morning,” says Jacqueline Rivers, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in stress. “We shouldn’t think of cortisol as the enemy, because the body needs it to function.”

In an athlete, cortisol provides the adrenaline rush that spurs her on in a race. Jeannie Samson, a top amateur triathlete and a mom of four, says she usually rises to the occasion in stressful race situations.

“I either had a bike crash or a flat three races in a row last year,” she says. “But I dealt with it well. After the crash I kept going, and went on to place second in my age group.”

Stressed Out

The body’s adrenal glands release several stress hormones besides cortisol the “fight-or-flight” hormone that causes an increase in heart rate, breathing and blood pressure including epinephrine and norepinephrine. When we find ourselves in a difficult situation, like an unexpected confrontation at work or a traffic jam, these hormones kick in, providing extra energy and alertness, and then return to normal when the crisis is over.

Generally, hormone levels rise and fall throughout the day as needed, and that balance is critical to our overall health. “The body releases these hormones to protect itself,” says Charles Raison, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta. “When we get into trouble is when we can’t fight or flee.”

When your body stays in a chronic high-stress mode for a long period of time—for example, dealing with a difficult boss daily or going through a divorce—your health can be severely impacted. “The body needs cortisol, but in balance,” says Holly Thacker, M.D., director of the Women’s Health Center at the Cleveland Clinic and author of Women’s Health: Your Body, Your Hormones, Your Choices. “Any hormone is a bad thing if it’s too high or too low.”

The constant release of stress hormones can cause many medical problems, including a decrease in muscle mass and immune function, and an increased risk for cardiac events, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, digestive and skin problems, depression and diabetes.

When your body stays in a chronic high-stress mode for a long period of time your health can be severely impacted.

Stress Queen

How we handle stress seems to depend at least partly on gender. Experts say that even though women produce more cortisol in stressful situations than men, we’re better at handling them.

During a difficult event, women secrete high levels of oxytocin, the “feel-good” chemical in the brain that encourages relaxation. “Oxytocin counteracts cortisol in stressful situations,” says Rivers. “It signals the need for social support.” Men release the same hormone in much smaller amounts, which may explain why the sexes respond to stress so differently.

A 2000 UCLA study published in Psychological Review suggests that women adopt a “tend-and-befriend” reaction to stress rather than the “fight-or-flight” strategy that’s long been described as the human stress response. The classic “fight-or-flight” response is often an aggressive one (yelling, for example) or withdrawing entirely (retreating to another room to be alone).

But the UCLA study found that most of the time women respond by seeking social contact and support from others especially other women (the “befriend” response)—and by protecting and nurturing their children (the “tend” response). Thacker says this makes sense because women are better at verbalizing, socializing and forming cooperative alliances—all of which are ways to reduce stress.


Stress Symptoms

If you experience any of these common physical symptoms, you may be suffering from stress. (As always, check with your doctor to rule out more serious conditions.)

To assess just how stressed out you are, use the Mayo Clinic’s interactive tool at:

  • Muscle tension in neck, face or shoulders
  • Problems sleeping
  • Low energy, exhaustion
  • Upset stomach, diarrhea or constipation
  • Headaches
  • Body aches and pains
  • Increase in or loss of appetite
  • Skin breakouts
  • Grinding teeth, clenched jaw
  • Trembling, shaking dizziness.

Stress Be Gone

It’s crucial to reduce stress to maintain optimal health. And it’s easier than you might think to ease tensions, without quitting your job or ditching your family.

No matter how afraid we are to tackle seemingly impossible tasks, experts say facing fears head-on is one of the best ways to control stressful ups and downs. Not only does it give us a sense of power and control, it helps boost our self-esteem, which lessens stress.

“If you think of something as a challenge rather than a threat, you can actually get rid of the fear and the body’s physiological response to it, automatically triggering a healthier response,” says Rivers. “Having a positive outlook helps you perform better in the moment and recover faster from the stressor.”

And as most athletes know, exercise can ease the strains of the day, no matter how bad. Why? When we’re stressed, we have a visceral, physical reaction: Increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and rising blood pressure. Take a walk or go for a run regularly and those physical symptoms lessen.

“Healthy exercise reduces heart rate and blood pressure, and some studies suggest that it alleviates psychological stress,” says Raison. “It’s one of the best things you can do to ‘tune up’ your stress response.”

Cory Leahy started a new job, began major renovations on her home, and moved into her parents’ house with her husband all at the same time. After six months, she’d had enough.

“I sought out a running program because I needed something that I could commit to that would act as a stress release,” she says. “It was a great help, and I ran my first half marathon five months later.”

Extreme exercise, however, is not good for the body,” says Raison. “You can abuse exercise, pushing those stress systems to a point where you don’t feel good anymore.

But don’t feel you have to stop training for a marathon or other endurance races—just train smart and don’t overdo it. Following a well-designed plan will keep your stress levels in check.

And while you’re exercising regularly and eating right, do something even simpler to control stress. Sleep at least eight hours or more each night to reduce excess cortisol and rebalance hormones, says Thacker.

In the end, a healthy amount of stress is natural. It may even get you that age-group award you’ve always wanted. “I really love race days because of that extra competitive spark in the air,” says Leahy. “I find that kind of stress helps with meeting a goal. Like my mom always told me, ‘Nothing is worth doing unless you’re quaking in your boots when you start.’ ”


Happiness in Motion

Exercise does more than keep those extra pounds at bay—it’s a well-known stress reliever. Here are a few more reasons why it’s smart to make time for that morning run:

KEEP YOUR HEART HEALTHY. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 20 to 60 minutes of aerobic activity three to five times a week. This not only keeps our bodies in shape, but also keeps our heart and lungs healthy, the organs that handle the majority of the body’s physiological stress response.

SEE THE GLASS HALF FULL. Charles Raison, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta, says those who exercise regularly usually have less inflammation in the body and a more positive outlook on life, which both help keep stress at bay.

STAY ALERT. “Exercise motivates us and also increases our attention span,” says Holly Thacker, M.D. A more focused mind helps you tackle complicated problems without being overwhelmed.


About the Author

Amy E. Lemen is a freelance journalist in Austin, Texas, who writes about health, fitness, home and design. She de-stresses by running, taking deep breaths, and saying no.

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