Your stress questions answered -- What are real solutions?

by Katherine Raymond

Questions about stressFrom why we feel it to its effects on your health, learn the basics about stress. If you know more about it you might find it easier to avoid in the future! Learn the top ten things you should know about stress. Some of them may surprise you!

What is stress?

"Anytime we are faced with something our minds perceive as outside our ability to cope with easily, the body gears up to cope with it," explains psychologist Dr. Fred Luskin of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. "That is the stress response."

Why do we experience stress?

The stress response can be traced back to our cave-dwelling ancestors' "fight or flight" instincts. "The things that stress people out are the things that threaten our sense of survival," notes Dr. Andrew Elmore, a stress management expert at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. "If a tiger jumps out, your body gets this tremendous rush of energy. You use that extra energy to deal with the stressful stimulus." Nowadays, though, "survival contains a lot of ideas — your money, your career, your family and so on. And whenever you're worrying about something really important, your body still behaves as if your life were physically threatened."

So what's happening to our bodies when we experience stress?

"When you feel like you're in danger, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in," explains Cathy Calderon, director of Shambhala Yoga & Dance Center. Once the brain perceives stressful stimuli, it organizes a number of chemical changes in the body:

• The body releases hormones that heighten our senses to better detect possible threats.
• Our heart rate and blood pressure increase as our circulatory system gears up to bring the extra oxygen and energy to our limbs if it is needed for fighting or fleeing.
• Other biological systems (like the immune system) and processes (like digestion) slow down.

All of this makes sense, and can be healthy in the short–term. But chronic activation of the stress response wears the body down. For example, excessive stress can result in cardiovascular problems, weakened immune systems, and inefficient metabolism, leading to weight gain or even diabetes.

What does stress do to your health?

When you're under a lot of stress, "the adrenal glands pump out cortisol, which suppresses the immune system," warns Dr. Esther Sternberg of the National Institute of Mental Health. "Over time, chronically stressed people become more susceptible to illness." Chronic stress can also lead to high blood pressure, which, "untreated, causes damage to the organ system, kidneys, eyes, and heart," according to Carolyn C. Lopez of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "The heart muscle gets strained from having to force blood out against high resistance. Eventually that muscle wears out, and you have problems with heart failure."

Are people today more stressed than ever?

It sure seems that way, since Americans are working longer hours and even kids are over-scheduled. But peoples' experience can be hard to measure. In recent years, we've developed a "greater awareness of stress and its dangers," says Dr. Kathy HoganBruen, Senior Director of Prevention at the National Mental Health Association (NMHA). Dr. Esther Sternburg adds that "people are much more serious in the way they approach stress now. They want to know the scientific and medical explanation for what they're feeling, so they can say, 'This is not all in my head.'" Dr. Elmore agrees: "Hippocrates said 2000 years ago that two-thirds of all illnesses were stress-related. And when we finally got around to doing the research, that's about what it turned out to be."

What are the warning signs of excessive stress?

Dr. Christian VanDenBerg, Director of the Executive Health Program at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, lists the red flags. Two or more of these can signal that you need to work on managing stress.

• Headaches
• 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
• Overeating
• Increased smoking, drinking or drug use

Who gets stressed?

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."

Can stress ever be a good thing?

"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.

Can we ever lead totally stress-free lives?

"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."

So are our bodies just hard-wired for burnout?

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.