Harness the power of stress! How you weather the ups and downs of life means the difference between sickness and health

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We've all worried about the damage stress may do: A laid-off worker goes home and has a heart attack and we wonder if it was stress-related. Within a year of an ugly divorce, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer. In the wake of the massive oil spill in April 2010, residents of the Gulf Coast reported more than 25 percent higher rates of depression than their inland neighbors, according to a Gallup poll.

But lately we've also heard a lot about "good stress," or eustress—the kind that keeps your mind active and your reflexes sharp. Since we all face stressors, from petty annoyances to major life changes, it's a good idea to learn the difference between stress that can contribute to sickness and stress that helps to keep you well—and, most importantly, what you can do about it.

Fight or Flight Response to Stress

Stress evokes the body's fight-or-flight response, which has been honed over human evolution to protect us from physical threats, explains Paul Rosch, M.D., F.A.C.P., president of the American Institute of Stress and clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College. "The hormone adrenaline floods the body, elevating blood pressure and heart rate, increasing blood flow to the extremities and muscle tension," says Rosch. "In prehistoric times, this helped a person react quickly to a threat—such as an approaching tiger. But the tragedy is that our bodies respond to today's stressors—typically mental or emotional—with that same prehistoric physical response."

Stress and Sickness

While fight-or-flight is still useful in modern life—research suggests it may make us quicker and smarter—prolonged exposure to stress has a serious downside. Chronic stress, which is most commonly experienced in an overly demanding job, an abusive relationship, a long-term caregiving situation and times of grief, takes a toll on the body and mind.

"Chronic stress causes the body to pump out high levels of the hormone cortisol, which can cause weight gain—especially fatty deposits deep in the abdomen—and poses a risk for heart disease, diabetes and even cancer," says Dr. Rosch. Because elevated cortisol levels can also cause premature atrophy of the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory, symptoms of chronic stress may include memory loss and shortened attention span.

Anxiety, depression, sleep problems and digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome are also symptoms. (The World Health Organization predicts that depression will be the leading cause of disability by 2020, and its severity often correlates directly with the elevation of cortisol levels.) In the most serious cases, such as prolonged grief or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), symptoms include an inability to move past a traumatic event.

Harness Stress

It's important to understand that it's not literally stress that makes us sick: It's how our bodies react to our challenges that can trigger disruptions in the nervous system and immune system, leading to illness.

"Watch people on a roller-coaster," says Dr. Rosch. "Thrill-seekers relish every steep plunge; other riders can't wait for the torture to end; still others have an air of nonchalance, even boredom. They're all experiencing the same ride, but with vastly different reactions."

Some thrill-seekers, of course, may be hard-wired to enjoy experiences the rest of us find frightening. But you can train your brain to adjust your expectations and reactions when your buttons get pushed.

Researchers believe that when you foster a sense of control over a situation, your brain is likely to react more positively. It will pump out neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, which boost your mood and sense of well-being. Ways of taking control of stress include getting some perspective. “Ask yourself, ‘In five years, how much will this matter?'," suggests Dr. Rosch. Admit what isn't in your control (your boss's grouchy moods, for instance) and embrace what is (instead of fuming on your way to work, listen to your favorite tunes). The idea that some stress can be not only tolerable but actually enjoyable is not as odd as it might sound: A first kiss, for instance, triggers the body's stress response, Dr. Rosch notes, but is hardly as unpleasant as, say, a root canal procedure.

And don't forget that a brief encounter with stress may be good for you. Recent animal studies suggest that bursts of short-term stress may provide a host of benefits, including improving memory with increased levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate, enhancing our ability to bond with others with a cascade of the feel-good chemical oxytocin and temporarily strengthening the immune system. (Further study is required to determine if the benefits seen in animals hold true for humans.)

So, if your response to work hassles, relationship woes or day-to-day caregiving is that of a white-knuckled roller-coaster rider, how can you learn to enjoy the ride, or at least take it in stride? Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, suggest exercise. A recent study showed that brief, vigorous exercise (as little as about 40 minutes over the course of three days) can protect you from the damaging effects of psychological stress by shoring up tiny pieces of DNA, known as telomeres, that are believed to play a role in supporting a healthy immune system. "Our finding confirms the CDC's recommendation that people get either 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week plus weight-bearing activities or 150 minutes of moderate activity per week," suggests Eli Puterman, Ph.D., a psychologist in the UCSF department of psychiatry. "That's about 30 minutes of walking five days per week."

10 Quick Stress-Busters!

1. Talk it out. Sharing your feelings and concerns with a partner, work colleagues, clergy or mental-health professional provides a release and a fresh perspective.

2. Take up a hobby. Whether it's as simple as planting flowers in a window box or as ambitious as woodworking, a hobby you truly enjoy helps dial down job-related stress.

3. Try yoga. In a recent study, hatha yoga (a gentle form of exercise that uses body postures and deep breathing) helped people recover from stress.

4. Breathe! Inhale slowly through the nose then exhale slowly out the mouth as you say a relaxing word (like ca-a-a-lm). Pause, then repeat up to 15 times.

5. Say no. Some stressors are self-created—like overpromising at work or overcommitting in your social life. Learn to identify them and back off.

6. Turn off your cellphone. Even just 10 minutes of "me time" each day can refresh your mental outlook and slow down your body's stress response.

7. Eat right. Aim for at least two servings of fruit and three of veggies per day. One banana, for instance, is loaded with vitamin B6 to help the body create mood-boosting serotonin.

8. Relax your neck and shoulders. Drop your head to one side, gently roll it around in a wide circle; repeat three to five times, then reverse directions. Repeat five times.

9. Visualize peace. Spend five minutes imagining a peaceful scene such as a warm beach or a quiet spot in the woods. What do you see, hear, smell, feel, taste?

10. Walk! People who get the CDC's recommended 150 minutes of brisk activity every week see improved mental health.

From our sister publication REMEDY, Winter 2010

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 07 Apr 2011

Last Modified: 06 Oct 2015