Manage Your Stress

Chapter 1: Manage Your Stress (VIDEO)

If you don't take the time to counter the effects of stress, your short-term happiness and long-term health will suffer.

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Chapter 1

Manage Your Stress (VIDEO)

If you don't take the time to counter the effects of stress, your short-term happiness and long-term health will suffer. When stress takes over your life, the consequences are not merely emotional. Physically, the stressed-out body takes a beating. Tiny spines on the dendrites of brain nerve cells are worn away by the effects of stress hormones. Stress weakens the immune response and is associated with increased fat around the organs, a serious health risk. A zone at the tail-end of chromosomes, called a telomere, unravels as we age. In recent years, scientists have found that when we are under stress, telomeres come apart more quickly. People under chronic, extreme stress require complex interventions to avoid or remedy serious health effects. But for most of us, taking a deep breath and devoting time to stress management will improve your well-being. In this wellness center, you will see the physical evidence of stress and its impact on the body. You will also learn how stress-management interventions can improve health and quality of life. Here is how to get the most out of this center:

Fight Or Flight

The stress response likely developed in our early ancestors to help them survive. A real or perceived threat causes a cascade of stress hormones to be released throughout the body. Glucose, for energy, is released into the blood stream.Muscles prepare to work hard. Systems unnecessary for our short-term survival, such as digestion or reproduction, slow down. These physical changes give a person enough energy to run away from a fierce predator, or fight another person for food.

Stress vs. Rest

The autonomic nervous system controls conditions throughout your body, automatically, in response to your environment. It has two parts: the parasympathetic nervous system, which guides activities that occur when the body is at rest, and the sympathetic nervous system, which kicks in to respond to stress.

The Stress Response

When a stressful event occurs, hormones are released that empower your body to respond. Your pulse and breathing quicken, and more fuel in the form of glucose is available to power your response. Processes that are not essential to survival—digestion, reproduction, growth—are ratcheted down so that you can focus on responding to the stressor.

Stressed Out! Signs & Symptoms

Stress is stealthy. Its negative effects may appear to be caused by an acute illness. Stress may just seem like fatigue. But it wears away at you physically and emotionally if you don't recognize the warning signs and find a way to manage it.

Chronic Stress

When unavoidable, relentless stress pervades your life, the health risks are wide-ranging and serious. Those who serve as caregivers to disabled family member, work in high-stress professions or experience prolonged traumatic events are at greatest risk. The physical evidence of stress appears in their cardiovascular system, brain, nerves, immune response, and psychological health. The upcoming chapters explore the details of these effects. Some of us have natural coping instincts that help us weather stress with fewer ill effects. Read below to see how factors such as our gender, age, and genes can help us deal with stress.

Stress Takes a Toll

The way we are programmed to react to stress is no match for the modern world. So many things trigger our stress response! When the stress response is rare, damage is minimal. When our bodies are flooded with stress hormones repeatedly, damage is unavoidable. Because stress increases our blood pressure and heart rate, cardiovascular strain results. Stress also slows down digestion, causing ailments including ulcers. Repeated suppression of the immune system, reproductive system and parts of the brain that deal with short-term memory also cause problems in those functions.

Stress & The Growing Brain

The brain is the main stress processor, so it stands to reason that a developing brain would be especially sensitive to its effects. Multiple studies have shown that babies and children who grow up under profoundly stressful circumstances actually have less density in certain areas of the brain. The hippocampus, the part of the brain connected with memory and learning, is particularly vulnerable to the effects of stress. That is the area where most damage shows up.

Stress & Epigenetics

Your genes are the permanent “recipe” of your traits, your uniqueness. External factors do not affect your genome. However, external factors can affect whether or not certain genes are expressed. Stress can cause a change in a network of compounds that do their work outside the genome, called the epigenome. The study of epigenetics is relatively new. So far, scientists have found that certain nutritional choices, smoking, and stress are among the factors that can cause epigenetic changes.

Inheriting Stress

One effect of stress that is especially concerning to researchers is that some damage may be passed down to the next generation. Evidence is building that some epigenetic changes in gene expression can be inherited. For example, the children of mothers who had chronic stress during pregnancy have higher-than-normal rates of mood and behavior ailments as adults. The offspring of those who lived through a grave famine were found to have altered genes for obesity. These epigenetic effects, caused by stressful life events, have prompted researchers to explore what other stress damage may be inherited.

Stress & Aging

Scientists are making great strides in learning how stress ages us. At the very ends of each chromosome is a zone called the telomere. It has been likened to the tip of a shoelace, keeping the end material from unraveling. Each time a cell divides, the telomere becomes a bit shorter, which means that as we age the telomeres are fraying. In recent years, researchers have found that people under extraordinary stress tend to have shortened telomeres, a sign that stress prematurely ages our cells. Meditation and other mindful awareness practices boost telomerase, an enzyme that maintains the health of the telomeres.

Coping with Stress

If you want to reduce the impact of stress on your health, you have to do two things: Minimize your exposure to stressful factors, and improve your response to stress. Exercise combats the effects of stress by strengthening the cardiovascular system and stimulating feel-good hormones. Practicing deep breathing techniques also helps you recover from stressful incidents. Building your relationships with others, sharing life's burdens and enjoying their company, also helps you bounce back more quickly from stressful experiences.

Beat Stress with Healthier Foods

Did you know that choosing the right foods can combat the effects of stress? Tryptophan - This amino acid is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone melatonin, two calming biochemicals. What food is richest in tryptophan? Sea lion kidneys. (If your tastes aren't that exotic, you can find it in seaweed, soy, eggs and sesame seeds.) Omega-3s - These fatty acids help control stress-related hormones and are nutritionally beneficial to your cardiovascular system as well. Find them in cold-water oily fishes (salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines) as well as seaweed, walnuts, and flaxseeds. Vitamin B6 - This vitamin helps the body build such neurotranmitters as serotonin, and may help boost immunity. Find it in chicken breast, yellowfin tuna, bell peppers, spinach, peanuts, beans, legumes, and whole grains. Vitamin B12 - B12 is key to serotonin and melatonin production. Foods high in vitamin B12 include shellfish, liver, meats, and any of the fishes high in omega 3s. Folic acid - Also known as vitamin B9 or folate, folic acid is an essential vitamin (the body can't produce it alone). It helps fight depression and fatigue. Eat liver, herbs, sunflower seeds, edamame, dark leafy greens, and beans to get adequate B9. Melatonin - This hormone regulates your sleep-wake cycle and has calming effects. Oats, dairy foods and rice contain small amounts, but to really affect your melatonin levels you should also eat foods high in tryptophan, which is melatonin's precursor. L-theanine - This amino acid derivative is shown to lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Find it in green teas and bay bolete mushrooms.

Beat Stress with Better Sleep Habits

Getting enough deep sleep keeps your stress hormones in balance We need sleep to cope with stress. Even if we miss a few hours of sleep one night, our natural stress response is affected, and our cortisol levels are higher than usual the next day. In one study, people deprived of sleep for 32 hours had a 45% increase in cortisol! Sleep has also been shown to help people rebound from stressful experiences. If you are over 18, aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep per night— 8 or 9 hours, if you don't feel alert and energized when you wake up. If you have trouble sleeping, develop a nightly routine of easing into sleep with soothing activities. Try to stick to a regular bedtime and wake-up time every day.

Beat Stress with Exercise

Vigorous exercise can lower blood cortisol levels and trigger the release of feel-good neurotransmitters Endorphins, the body's home-grown pain relievers, are known to block pain signals to the brain, which brings about their feel-good effect. Just as endorphins are the body's version of morphine, endocannabinoids are its homemade version of the active ingredient in cannabis, or marijuana. Both are released into the bloodstream in great volume after intense aerobic exercise. Both bring about feelings of euphoria, calm and well-being. Exercise improves mood and controls anxiety in other ways. It unleashes the calming neurotransmitters serotonin, which regulates anxiety, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which inhibits neural activity in the brain. A study of subjects over 50 who had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder established three research groups. One group started an aerobic exercise training program. A second took the antidepressant medication Zoloft. The third group combined the two interventions—some exercise and Zoloft. After 16 weeks, all three groups showed improvement in their depression symptoms. The group taking the drug had more immediate improvement, but by the end of the research period it was clear that the exercise-only group had improved just as much as the other two. Exercise may be the best anti-stress prescription of all!


Meditation practice is one of the key stress interventions being studied by medical researchers. It has proven to be very effective. There is more than one way to practice meditation, and you should find the approach that works best for you. Some practices use a focusing word or image to help a practitioner clear other thoughts from the mind. What every practice has in common is devotion of a certain amount of time focused inward, a concerted effort to quiet the mind.

Beat Stress with Mindful Awareness

Meditation, yoga, group therapy—find the area of focus that helps you overcome stress. What is mindful awareness? It is, at heart, a catch-all term for many activities that emphasize focus on your physical, mental and emotional being. Yoga, various forms of meditation, tai chi, positive visualization, and different kinds of therapy all have in common the goal of quieting the mind, paying attention to the body, and restoring the spirit. That may sound unscientific, or even antiscientific, when in fact the scientific evidence for the benefits of mindful awareness practices are growing by the day. Group Therapy: One of the most stressed out populations in the modern world, military combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, were found to benefit from a group therapy structure that required them to share their experiences with other vets. Groups of 9 to 11 troops spent a total of 60 or more hours together over 18 weeks, discussing their wartime memories and other aspects of their lives. Each gave two 2 -hour talks about their experience, and listened to recordings of their presentations 10 times. An impressive 81 percent of participants showed “clinically significant improvement”in stress symptoms after the group experience, an effect that remained steady six months after the group adjourned. For some, just hearing that others had frozen under fire or felt helpless alleviated the guilt or shame they had felt about doing the same. The power of group counseling is often in discovering that others who have faced the same kind of stress you face have found ways to cope, and are working to improve, just as you are. Meditation: In a study, 133 healthy adults volunteered to learn meditation techniques to reduce stress. They took a variety of mood and psychological assessments. Then they learned a simple meditation technique involving focusing on a single, meaningful word, called a mantra. The students met four times for one hour each meeting in small groups, and were instructed to practice the meditation for 15-20 minutes twice a day. After the instruction period, student scores on the mood and psychological assessments improved. Their perceived stress, mood states, anxiety inventory and brief symptom inventory scores all improved. Those who had practiced most frequently had the greatest improvement. Yoga: Emotionally distressed women volunteered to participate in a 3-month yoga program to relieve stress. The subjects took multiple assessment tools to measure their perceived stress, anxiety, mood, relative depression, well-being, physical status and more. Their levels of salivary cortisol, the stress hormone, were also measured. They met twice a week for a 90-minute Iyengar yoga class. Compared with volunteers who had been put on a waiting list for the class, the yoga students showed pronounced improvements in all of the assessment areas measured. Their cortisol levels dropped after participation in a class, and those who had suffered from headache or back pain reported significant pain relief. Choosing a Practice: Mindful awareness is about your individual mind, stressors and lifestyle. Find an approach that appeals to you, and see if you can sit in on a class or group meeting before committing to an intervention. The medical establishment has not always accepted the notion that some of these practices could improve your health and longevity. But all of that is changing in the face of compelling research about the connections between the mind and body.

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