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It's often said that stress doesn't kill us--it's our reaction to stress that does the damage.  During a period of global anxiety over job markets, mortgage crises, and financial collapse, the likelihood that you will be touched by stress increases considerably.

 Stress, as defined by Dr. Sheldon Cohen, is "the perception that you are facing demands that exceed your ability to cope."  The demands can be physical-you're being pursued by a robber; or they can be psychological-you're worrying about a job or money.  By design we are actually better able to cope with physical stress than the psychological variety.  Our stress response is an archaic mechanism designed to help primitive man survive a sudden physical threat by animal attack or warrior raid.  It's a powerful physiological response meant to kick in briefly while the body prepares to flee or to fight the danger.

 Now in the 21st century our brains often interpret threats-job loss or problems with the retirement account-the same way they would a lion, only the threats don't go away.  They keep triggering the stress response until it actually harms the body.

 When the brain perceives a threat, potent stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, creating a surge of strength.  Glucose levels spike to provide energy.  The heart rate jumps, and blood pressure climbs so that blood moves faster and with greater force to deliver oxygen to the muscles.  At the same time other hormones suppress systems that don't directly aid the body's efforts to fight or flee, including the immune, digestive, growth and reproductive functions.  The body remains in this state of alert until the brain is convinced the threat is over.  This type of response was perfect for getting our ancestor on the savannah up a tree before a lion ate him.  (Ancestor sat in tree recovering from superhuman race, excess adrenaline and cortisol burned completely away in the effort, lion left in search of slower prey, crisis resolved, bodily functions returned to normal.)

 If this massive reaction occurs repeatedly, however, over time it wreaks havoc on the delicate hormonal responses that regulate the body's various systems.  Elevated hormones rev up the cardiovascular system, straining the heart and blood vessels and increasing cholesterol and plaque.  Other problems can ensue, including colitis and bowel problems, and infections that breach a faulty immune system.  One study shows that people living with one of two major stressors-unemployment and underemployment-were five times more likely to develop colds than the unstressed.

 The first step toward breaking this downward spiral is to learn to notice your stress signals.  Key indicators include a faster heartbeat, a drop in energy, changes in appetite, teeth grinding, tension in the arms, back or neck, tightness in the stomach, and sleep problems.  Attend to these signs early, and find ways to cope that work for you.

 The brain is the arbiter of stress, and what sends one person into an anxious funk or even prompts thoughts of suicide, hardly affects another.  Curiously, two long-term studies showed that people who worried and felt chronically insecure about their jobs reported much worse overall health and were more depressed than those who actually lost their jobs.  In other words fear and worry are more detrimental than an actual negative event, and it's all happening in the brain.  What's key is that the brain can be distracted, calmed by activities that engage and provide enjoyment-such as reading a great mystery, jogging with the dog, or playing the trombone.  Dealing with stress is not about moving away from the negative; it's about moving toward the positive.

 Here are nine proven strategies for beating stress and staying healthy, no matter what the world may throw at you:

  • Socialize.  See friends, relatives, go to club meetings.  Stay connected.  This is paramount.
  • Talk, laugh, cry, get angry.  Let it out.
  • Exercise regularly.  Studies show exercise reduces anxiety, releases tension and spurs the brain to pump out endorphins, chemicals that create a sense of wellbeing.  Try for 30 to 60 minutes three times a week.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Block stress by losing yourself in activities you enjoy deeply-reading, playing music, gardening, visiting friends.  Add these activities to your daily or weekly schedule.  Be disciplined about this.
  • Get perspective.  Remember past hardships and problems you've overcome.
  • Live in the moment through activities you enjoy, and small escapes like movies and TV.
  • Practice slow, deep breaths.  Shallow, fearful breathing seems to send stress signals to the brain.
  • Try yoga or meditation.  If you don't enjoy them, don't force yourself-try another activity.

Portions edited from "Stress-Why It's Making You Sick", by Barbara Basler, AARP Bulletin, May 2009, Vol. 50, No. 4.