• Grinding the teeth
• Pain in the shoulders, neck and back
• Chronic fatigue or insomnia
• Sexual dysfunction
• Upset stomach or heartburn
• Frequent colds and flus
• Anxiety and depression
• Frequent anger or irritability
• Poor concentration or forgetfulness
• Increased smoking, drinking or drug use
From CEOs to parents to students, "anybody can be stressed, across the gamut," says Dr. HoganBruen. If you're experiencing the symptoms above, don't brush them off because you're not going through a major crisis. "Take a stress inventory of what's going on in your life" suggests Dr. VanDenBerg. "Low-level situational stresses like commuting stress, underproductive work meetings, too many commitments, family arguments — the little things add up." If your symptoms don't improve after you try out basic stress reduction tactics, consult a doctor. In serious cases, Dr. VanDenBerg points out, "feelings of stress may be a symptom of anxiety or depression rather than the other way around."
"The idea that we should always be relaxed is not a good thing," asserts neurologist Dr. Esther Sternberg. "If you have to perform, you want to have some activation of your stress response." For instance, that nervous energy before you give a big presentation can rev you up to peak performance. It's only when stress becomes chronic, or overpowering, that its negative effects start to wear you down.
"Some degree of stress is a necessary part of life," states Dr. VanDenBerg. Stress can result from even positive life changes. "Stress has to do with change — anytime you have to adjust or adapt," observes Jon Seskevitch, R.N., a member of Duke University Medical Center's Stress Management Consult Team. "The holidays, a wedding, moving, or starting a new job can all cause stress because of change." Dr. Sternberg explains why our bodies are wired this way: "Novelty is a stressor — it activates the stress response in all mammals. It's a survival skill to stay alert in a new situation."
Quite the contrary. The sympathetic nervous system is designed to respond to emergency situations (think back to that tiger) with "fight or flight" signals. But we also have a built-in chill-out mechanism called the parasympathetic nervous system, which, as yoga instructor Cathy Calderon puts it, cues us to "rest and digest." In other words, just as car horns and coworkers may send your body into stress mode, signals like deep breathing and muscle release can tell your body that it's chill-out time. Once we learn stress management tools, we can spend a lot less time in crisis mode: "The good news is, we're not just victims of stress — we're actually biologically wired to de-stress and be happy and joyous."
Katherine Raymond is a freelance writer, editor and Web producer based in NYC. She has written and edited features on health, wellness, fitness and food for numerous print and on-line publications.
© 2012 Alere. All rights reserved. Last Reviewed March 2012. Photo courtesy iStockphoto.