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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.
Peter Grinspoon, MD
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