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

Job stress? It could strain your heart

Too much on-the-job stress could put women at increased risk for a heart attack or stroke, according to a new study from researchers at Harvard Medical School. The authors say stressful jobs might contribute to heart problems by leading women into unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, or by contributing to physiological changes, including depression or high blood pressure. (Locked) More »

Grieving may trigger heart attack

Grieving people have elevated levels of adrenaline and stress-related hormones. This can lead to increased clamping down of one's arteries, a faster heart rate and elevated blood pressure, all of which can increase the chance of a rupture of atherosclerotic plaques, causing a heart attack. (Locked) More »

Stress and overeating

Stress hormones trigger increased appetite in general, and cravings for fatty, sugary foods in particular. Once ingested, fat- and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that inhibits activity in the parts of the brain that produce and process stress and related emotions. So part of our stress-induced craving for those foods may be that they counteract stress.   (Locked) More »

Music and health

Music can enhance the function of neural networks, slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, reduce levels of stress hormones and inflammatory cytokines, and provide some relief to patients undergoing surgery, as well as heart attack and stroke victims. Researchers are exploring the ways in which music may influence health, from stress relief to athletic performance. (Locked) More »

Q&A: The impact of stress

Q. Why do some people gain weight when they feel stressed?A. People who eat in response to stress are likely to find themselves packing on pounds for the same reason other people gain weight – because they are eating more calories than they are burning. However research also suggests that chronic stress raises the level of chemicals that increase appetite, especially for food rich in carbohydrates. Q. Are you more likely to get sick when you are stressed?A. Several studies have concluded that you may be more likely to get a cold when you are under stress. Although other research has shown that both short- and long-term stress affects particular immune system cells, it's not yet clear whether this increases the risk of disease. Q. Why does my stomach hurt when I'm feeling stressed?A. A combination of psychological and physical factors can trigger gastrointestinal pain and other symptoms. Gastric acid secretion can increase, which may lead to heartburn and inflammation of the esophagus. Stress can also cause abnormal contractions in the small intestine and colon, which may result in abdominal discomfort. 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 »