Whether you're caring for
a loved one who's ill, coping with the loss of a job,
or recovering from an abusive relationship, it's a good
bet that you're experiencing some level of stress.
Even crawling through
bumper-to-bumper traffic each morning is enough to cause
some people to lose their cool.
Being exposed to these
stressful situations day-after-day, year-after-year
can be mentally and emotionally draining -- sometimes
to the point of breakdown. And the physical toll is
huge. Stress can put you at risk for high blood pressure
and heart disease, trigger headaches and asthma attacks,
and exacerbate other medical conditions.
With uncertain economic
times, broken marriages and wayward children to worry
about, "I'd say that we have a whole series of events
coming together now that are more profound than any
other time in history," said Don R. Powell, a licensed
psychologist and president of the American Institute
for Preventive Medicine, which provides stress management
training to corporate employees.
Learning to cope with
stress becomes all that more important, he asserted.
Now might be the time
to do something about it. February is Wise Health Consumer
Month, a time for people to empower themselves to make
better health decisions. That includes learning new
ways to manage stress.
"Stress is the body's
non-specific response to any increased demand that's
placed upon it," Powell said. Even positive changes
-- getting married, changing careers -- can be stress-provoking.
"You can be under a lot of stress from winning the lottery,
just as you could be from losing your job," he said.
Studies show a little
bit of stress actually can be a good thing. Short-term
stress, the type that produces a fight-or-flight response,
boosts the immune system, preparing it for possible
infection or injury, according to a major review of
stress-and-immunity studies in the July 2004 issue of
Psychological Bulletin, published by the American
Psychological Association (APA).
But when stress becomes
chronic or prolonged, it can wear you down.
"In general, we think
that anything that lasts longer than a fight or a flight
-- a few minutes to maybe a few hours -- marks the transition
from a beneficial to a harmful stress response," said
Suzanne C. Segerstrom, an associate professor of psychology
at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and a co-author
of the review.
Older people and those
who already have compromised immune systems seem to
be particularly vulnerable, the analysis revealed.
What's not known is whether
the relationship between stress and disease is due to
changes in the immune system. It seems plausible for
some conditions, such as viral cancers and heart disease,
Segerstrom allowed, "but it hasn't been tested."
Just how stressed-out
are we? According to the APAs online Help Center:
- Forty-three percent
of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
- Seventy-five percent
to 90 percent of all physician office visits are for
stress-related ailments and complaints.
- Stress is linked to
the six leading causes of death -- heart disease,
cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the
liver, and suicide.
There's even evidence
linking stress with premature aging. Researchers at
the University of California, San Francisco found that
prolonged psychological stress affects molecules that
are believed to play a role in cellular aging and, possibly,
the onset of disease. In the study, the immune cells
of women who care for chronically ill children aged
faster than those of women with healthy kids.
So what can people do
to lessen the effects of stress on the body? Powell
teaches a technique to help victims of stress revamp
how they think about things. A traffic snarl needn't
set your teeth clenching. Just turn on some soothing
"Perception is everything,"
For the person who's
weary of running late or missing deadlines, a course
in time management may be just the ticket.
techniques, including meditation, deep muscle relaxation
and hypnosis, also can help a person de-stress. So can
a good night's sleep -- a minimum of seven hours each
night. And don't forget proper nutrition and exercise:
these things can keep you healthy and better able to
cope with stress.
information on Stress
More on how
stress affects us.