Stress

Stress is bumper-to-bumper traffic when you're in a hurry. It's a worrisome illness, an argument with your partner, a job turning sour. It's the need to care for an ailing parent and a pile of unpaid bills.

Stress has many faces, and creeps into our lives from many directions. No matter what causes it, stress puts the body and the mind on edge. It floods the body with stress hormones. The heart pounds. Muscles tense. Breathing quickens. The stomach churns.

The body's response to stress was honed in our prehistory. Collectively called the "fight-or-flight" response, it has helped humans survive threats like animal attacks, fires, floods, and conflict with other humans. Today, obvious dangers like those aren't the main things that trigger the stress response. Any situation you perceive as threatening, or which requires you to adjust to a change, can set it off. And that can spell trouble.

Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. It can dampen the immune system, increasing susceptibility to colds and other common infections. It can contribute to asthma, digestive disorders, cancer, and other health problems. New research even supports the notion that high levels of stress somehow speed up the aging process.

Though stress is inevitable, you can help control your body's response to it. Exercise, meditation, invoking the relaxation response, and mindfulness are great stress busters.

Stress Articles

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), distressing symptoms occur after a frightening incident. For the most part, a person with this disorder must have experienced the event him or herself, or witnessed the event in person. The person may also have learned about violence to a close loved one. The event must have involved serious physical injury or the threat of serious injury or death. Exposure to violence through media (news reports or electronic images) is usually not considered a traumatic incident for the purposes of this diagnosis, unless it is part of a person's work (for example, police officers or first responders to a violent event). Some examples of traumas include: Military combat (PTSD was first diagnosed in soldiers and was known as shell shock or war neurosis) Serious motor vehicle accidents, plane crashes and boating accidents Industrial accidents Natural disasters (tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions) Robberies, muggings and shootings Rape, incest and child abuse Hostage-taking and kidnappings Political torture Imprisonment in a concentration camp Refugee status In the United States, physical assault and rape are the most common stressors causing PTSD in women, and military combat is the most common PTSD stressor in men. Stress of this severity does not automatically cause PTSD. In fact, most people who are exposed to terrible trauma do not develop this particular illness. The severity of the stressor does not necessarily match the severity of symptoms. Responses to trauma vary widely. Many people develop mental disorders other than PTSD. Acute Stress Disorder is the term used when symptoms develop within the first month after a traumatic event. The term PTSD with delayed onset (or delayed expression) is used when symptoms surface six months or more after the traumatic event. It is not clear what makes some people more likely to develop PTSD. Certain people may have a higher risk of PTSD because of a genetic (inherited) predisposition toward a more intense reaction to stress. Another way to put this is that some people have greater inborn resilience in response to trauma. A person's personality or temperament may affect the outcome after a trauma. Lifetime experience of other traumas (especially in childhood) and current social support (having loving and concerned friends and relatives) also may influence whether or not a person develops symptoms of PTSD. People with PTSD are more likely to have a personality disorder. They also are more likely to have depression and to abuse substances. Up to 3% or so of all people in the United States have full-fledged PTSD in any given year. Up to 10% of women and 5% of men have PTSD at some point in their lifetime. Although PTSD can develop at any time in life, the disorder occurs more frequently in young adults than in any other group. This may be because young adults are more frequently exposed to the types of traumas that can cause PTSD. The risk of developing PTSD is also higher than average in people who are poor, unmarried or socially isolated, perhaps because they have fewer supports and resources helping them to cope. (Locked) More »

Understanding the stress response

A stressful situation can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes. A stressful incident can make the heart pound and breathing quicken. Muscles tense and beads of sweat appear. This combination of reactions to stress is also known as the "fight-or-flight" response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties. Over the years, researchers have learned not only how and why these reactions occur, but have also gained insight into the long-term effects stress has on physical and psychological health. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that prolonged stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise). More »

Exercising to relax

Exercise reduces stress hormones and stimulates production of endorphins, which together help foster relaxation. Other techniques, such as breathing exercises and muscle relaxation, can enhance the stress-beating effects of exercise. More »

Job strain and heart disease risk in women

Harvard researchers have uncovered strong links between women's job stress and cardiovascular disease. Findings from the Women's Health Study (WHS) — a landmark inquiry into disease prevention involving more than 17,000 female health professionals — show that women whose work is highly stressful have a 40% increased risk of heart disease (including heart attacks and the need for coronary artery surgery), compared with their less stressed colleagues. More »

Take a deep breath

Adapted from Stress Management: Approaches for preventing and reducing stress. Proper breathing goes by many names. You may have heard it called diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, or belly breathing. When you breathe deeply, the air coming in through your nose fully fills your lungs, and you will notice that your lower belly rises. The ability to breathe so deeply and powerfully is not limited to a select few. This skill is inborn but often lies dormant. Reawakening it allows you to tap one of your body's strongest self-healing mechanisms. Why does breathing deeply seem unnatural to many of us? One reason may be that our culture often rewards us for stifling strong emotions. Girls and women are expected to rein in anger. Boys and men are exhorted not to cry. What happens when you hold back tears, stifle anger during a charged confrontation, tiptoe through a fearful situation, or try to keep pain at bay? Unconsciously, you hold your breath or breathe irregularly. (Locked) More »

Optimism and your health

Numerous studies have shown an association between a positive, optimistic life outlook and lower risk of heart attack, high blood pressure, and coronary artery disease, as well as better overall health and improved longevity. More »