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Mayo Clinic

Stress: Why You Have it and How it Hurts Your Health

Today's news includes around-the-clock coverage of natural and manmade disasters. Earthquakes and floods. War and terrorist attacks. Just 10 minutes of watching the network news can make your stress level soar.

Compounding matters, you've got a big presentation in an hour, and you've hardly had a chance to prepare. Urgent e-mails keep popping onto your display screen, each one sending a stab of anxiety through your chest. As minutes tick by, you search frantically for slides and handouts. Meanwhile, you heart races and your head pounds.

Modern life is full of pressures, fears and frustration. In other words, it's stressful. Racing against deadlines, sitting in traffic, arguing with your spouse - all these make your body react as if you were facing a physical threat. This reaction gave early humans the energy to fight aggressors or run from predators. It helped the species survive.

Today, instead of protecting you, it may, if constantly activated, make you more vulnerable to life-threatening health problems. Fortunately, though, you can develop skills to avoid some stressors and limit the effects of others. The payoff includes less fatigue, more peace of mind and - perhaps- a longer, healthier life.

What is The Stress Response

Often referred to as the "fight-or-flight" reaction, the stress response occurs automatically when you feel threatened. Your pituitary gland, located at the base of your brain, responds to a perceived threat by stepping up its release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which signals other glands to produce additional hormones. When the pituitary sends out a burst of ACTH, it's like an alarm system going off deep in your brain. This alarm tells your adrenal glands, situated atop your kidneys, to release a flood of stress hormones into your bloodstream. These hormones -including cortisol and adrenaline - focus your concentration, speed your reaction time, and increase your strength and agility.

How Stress Affects Your Body

After you've fought, fled or otherwise escaped your stressful situation, the levels of cortisol and adrenaline in your bloodstream decline. As a result, your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal and your digestion and metabolism resume a regular pace. But if stressful situations pile up one after another, your body has no chance to recover. This long-term activation of the stress-response system can disrupt almost all your body's processes, increasing your risk of obesity, insomnia, digestive complaints, heart disease and depression.

  • Digestive system
    It's common to have a stomachache or diarrhea when you're stressed. This happens because stress hormones slow the release of stomach acid and the emptying of the stomach. The same hormones also stimulate the colon, which speeds the passage of its contents. Chronic stress can also lead to continuously high levels of cortisol. This hormone can increase appetite and cause weight gain.

  • Immune system
    Chronic stress tends to dampen your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and other infections. Typically, your immune system responds to infection by releasing several substances that cause inflammation. In response, the adrenal glands produce cortisol, which switches off the immune and inflammatory responses once the infection is cleared. However, prolonged stress keeps your cortisol levels continuously elevated, so your immune system remains suppressed.

    In some cases, stress can have the opposite effect, making your immune system overactive. The result is an increased risk of autoimmune diseases, in which your immune system attacks your body's own cells. Stress can also worsen the symptoms of autoimmune diseases. For example, stress is one of the triggers for the sporadic flare-ups of symptoms in lupus.

  • Nervous system
    If your fight-or-flight response never shuts off, stress hormones produce persistent feelings of anxiety, helplessness and impending doom. Oversensitivity to stress has been linked with severe depression, possibly because depressed people have a harder time adapting to the negative effects of cortisol. The byproducts of cortisol act as sedatives, which contribute to the overall feeling of depression. Excessive amounts of cortisol can cause sleep disturbances, loss of sex drive and loss of appetite.

  • Cardiovascular system
    High levels of cortisol can also raise your heart rate and increase your blood pressure and blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels. These are risk factors for both heart attacks and strokes. Cortisol levels also appear to play a role in the accumulation of abdominal fat, which gives some people an "apple" shape. People with apple body shapes have a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes than do people with "pear" body shapes, where weight is more concentrated in the hips.

  • Other systems
    Stress worsens many skin conditions - such as psoriasis, eczema, hives and acne - and can be a trigger for asthma attacks.

Individual Reactions to Stress

Your reaction to a specific stressor is different from anyone else's. Some people are naturally laid-back about almost everything, while others react strongly at the slightest hint of stress- and most fall somewhere between those extremes. Genetic variations may partly explain the differences. The genes that control the stress response keep most people on a fairly even keel, only occasionally priming the body for fight or flight. Overactive or underactive stress responses may stem from slight differences in these genes.

Life experiences may increase your sensitivity to stress as well. Strong stress reactions sometimes can be traced to early environmental factors. People who were exposed to extreme stress as children tend to be particularly vulnerable to stress as adults.

Reducing the Effects of Stress

Stress develops when the demands in your life exceed your ability to cope with them. It follows, then, that you can manage stress by:

  • Changing your environment so that the demands aren't so high
  • Learning how to better cope with the demands in your environment
  • Doing both

Here are some helpful techniques:

  • Look after your body
    To handle stress, your body requires a healthy diet and adequate rest. Exercise also helps, by distracting you from stressful events and releasing your nervous energy.
  • Learn to relax
    It's the polar opposite of the stress response. Deep-breathing exercises may put you in a relaxed state. Follow these steps:
  1. Inhale through your nose to a count of 10. As you inhale, your upper abdomen should rise - not your chest.
  2. Exhale slowly and completely, to a count of 10.
  3. Repeat five to 10 times. Try to do this several times every day, even when you're not feeling stressed.
If you have persistent trouble relaxing, consider taking up meditation or studying yoga or tai chi, Eastern disciplines said to focus your mind, calm your anxieties and release your physical tension. Therapeutic massage may also loosen taut muscles and calm frazzled nerves.
  • Shift your outlook
    In many cases, simply choosing to look at situations in a more positive way can reduce the amount of stress in your life. Step back from the conflict or worry that's put you in knots and ask what part of it is troubling you most. Are you afraid of losing face? If so, would it really be that bad? Are you angry or frustrated to the point of losing self-control? If so, is your reaction out of proportion? Take a break, talk to someone close and get a different perspective on your troubles.
  • Get help
    On your own, you may have limited success trying to change the habitual patterns of thought and behavior that trigger your stress response. Psychiatrists, psychologists and licensed clinical social workers are trained to help you break free of these patterns.

Meeting the Challenge

Stress management requires continuous practice as you go through life and deal with change - which often comes unexpectedly. Even if you take everyday frustrations in stride, your stress response can still surge up when you find yourself dealing with something big, such as illness, job loss or bereavement.

Your body's fight-or-flight reaction has strong biological roots. It's there for self-preservation, even if it's not much help in a demanding job or a stormy relationship. If stress is getting the better of you and you fear its long-term effects, don't be afraid to seek help. You may not find a quick or permanent fix, but in time, you'll recognize the signs that pressure is building and learn the best ways to lighten the load.

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