Five Tips to Help Manage the Devastating Effects of Stress
Five strategies—from meditation to exercise to psychotherapy—for managing stress.
When we lament that we feel stressed, we have a Czech biochemist to thank. Around 1950, Hans Selye was the first to use the term “stress,” borrowed from metallurgy, to refer to the mental and physical pressures that tie the stomach in knots and thwart the mind from slumber. Since then, scientists’ understanding of the mechanisms of stress and its impact on humans has evolved, with a growing body of evidence confirming that unchecked stress is a significant health risk.
“Stress produces a complex physiological response,” says Michael Irwin, MD, the Norman Cousins Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. Stressful thoughts trigger the release of corticotrophin-releasing hormone in the brain, a signal that activates the sympathetic nervous system and the famous fight-or-flight response. Not only does blood pressure and heart rate rise, but scientists say inflammation increases, as well. “If we were on the savanna and running away from a lion, that would be very helpful: The inflammation primes the immune system in case we get injured,” Dr. Irwin says. “But when we are stuck in a car or an office, that kind of response just becomes maladaptive and puts us at risk for chronic diseases.”
Among the factors that can age the body and shorten one’s life, such as smoking or eating poorly, uncontrolled stress is by far the most powerful, says Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic and author of This Is Your Do-Over. “Unmanaged stress is the leading cause of heart attack,” he says. “It is the leading cause of cancer and a leading cause of accidents. There is not a [bodily] system that it does not affect in an adverse way.”
To be clear, some amount of stress is motivating and even beneficial to one’s health. What makes stress unhealthy is our reaction to it, says Dr. Roizen, when we respond, say, with anxiety or unhealthy behavior. But stress is relatively easy to manage, he says. He helped launch a Cleveland Clinic program that teaches participants multiple stress-taming practices, not to squelch all stress, but to give them tools to manage their reactions to it. In a study of the program, participants reported a 30 percent decrease in stress levels after learning meditation. “Stress is something that ages you, but by managing it you can obliterate almost all of that effect,” Dr. Roizen adds.
Here is a guide to five effective stress-taming practices. Researchers recommend performing a combination of them regularly so when that late-night email arrives, traffic comes to a screeching halt, or an angry client snarls, we are ready.
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