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Managing the Stress of Everyday Life

Managing the Stress of Everyday Life

Are you stressed? Of course you are. Just about everyone experiences stress and anxiety on some level. The real issue is whether you're managing it correctly. In this article, we'll examine what causes stress, the good and bad affects it has on your body and, most importantly, how to control it. Now, take a deep breath and relax. You're well on your way to a happier and healthier life!

What Is Stress?
The term stress was coined by Dr. Hans Selye, an Austrian-born physician and endocrinologist who spent his life studying its effects. According to Selye, stress is the body's way of coping with immediate danger. He theorized that for early man, stress is what kept him alive.

When confronted by immediate danger, nearly every system in our body modifies itself for the sake of survival. First, the brain releases hormones which have control over organs, including the heart and lungs, as well as functions such as circulation and digestion. By having a heart that's capable of beating faster and lungs that can take in more oxygen, the human body is able to react in a fight or flight manner during an emergency. When a short-term crisis occurs, changes caused by acute stress can be to our benefit. The problem, however, is when they are experienced over a long duration.

When everyday life poses overwhelming challenges and tense situations, an individual's stress can become chronic. High-pressure jobs, relationship issues, and financial worries are just some of the causes of chronic stress. While it's not hard to understand the worrisome nature of these problems, it's mind-boggling when you consider how they can affect our minds and bodies.

Let's go back to the idea of the body's ability to adapt to threats of danger. During these times, one of two things generally happens. The organs and/or systems either over-activate or they under-activate. While these changes pose no immediate threats, they wreak havoc when they're prolonged.

What It Does
One of the first areas to be affected by chronic stress is the brain. Scientific evidence has shown that chronic stress is a major cause of hyperactivity within the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. Stress also disrupts the release of Serotonin, a nerve chemical which promotes feelings of well-being. It's not hard to understand why a large number of those who suffer from chronic stress eventually suffer from either depression and/or anxiety as well. Both conditions can be debilitating when it comes to daily function, let alone one's general happiness.

Heart disease is another potential result of chronic stress. Initially, stress affects the sympathetic nervous system which marshals many of our body's organs, including the heart. The result is a heart that pumps faster and arteries which over-constrict. It's also known to alter heart rhythms, cause blood to clot, and raise cholesterol levels. For women, stress has been shown to lower estrogen levels which are highly important for the heart's overall health. For men, stress has a big affect on blood pressure and, in turn, raises the chances of a stroke.

Gastrointestinal and digestive problems have also been linked to stress. This is due to the symbiotic relationship between the brain and the intestine as they are both mediated by many of the same hormones. Chronic stress has been shown to disrupt the digestive system through an over-production of acids. An abundance of these acids is known to cause symptoms such as cramping, bloating, and diarrhea. It is also known to lead to more dangerous conditions such as peptic ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.

It's been proven that stress has a direct effect on the body's immune system. Not only does chronic stress increase a person's risk for infection, it can affect their response to certain immunizations. Although it has not been linked to causing immune disorders such as lupus, it does have a negative effect on the treatment of such diseases.

Other conditions which have been linked to chronic stress include eating disorders, diabetes, joint pain, headaches, sleep disturbances, allergies, skin disorders, unexplained hair loss, gum disease, and sexual as well as reproductive dysfunction.

What You Can Do
Before we talk about how to manage stress, it's important to first address what should not be done. Many people suffering from chronic stress have been known to concurrently partake in some potentially destructive pastimes. These include drug or alcohol use, smoking, excessive behavior, as well as overly-passive activities such as watching television. All of these have an ability to compound the negative effects of stress and can be the impetus of a self-perpetuating, downward spiral.

Now that we're ready to talk resolution, it's important to understand that no single solution is right for everyone. Only you will be able to determine what works for you versus what has no effect at all.

Dedicate Yourself to a Healthy Lifestyle
Whenever the subject of a healthy lifestyle is addressed, it's important to first start with the benefits of a healthy diet. General health, as well as the reduction of stress, is shown to be enhanced by a diet that consists of lean proteins, whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables. This includes reducing one's intake of overly-processed and fast foods. It's also a good idea to limit foods containing high amounts of caffeine, sugar, and fat, as well as your consumption of alcohol.

The next order of business in promoting a healthy lifestyle is the increase of daily exercise. At the very least, exercise serves as a distraction to one's stressful life. Physically speaking, exercise strengthens the heart and circulatory system as well as muscles and joints, all of which are negatively affected by chronic stress. Another benefit of exercising is the accompanying release of endorphins, or the neurotransmitters which act as the body's natural pain relievers. One such endorphin is the previously mentioned Serotonin.

Modify Your Behavior
Albert Einstein once said, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Therefore, if you find yourself experiencing chronic stress, it is important that you make a commitment to changing certain aspects of your life.

The first step is to identify your daily sources of stress along with your sources of comfort. If they don't readily come to mind, keeping a journal may help. Take special note of any events which consistently put a strain on your energy and time, especially those which elicit a negative physical response like a headache. After several weeks, you should have a pretty good idea of what's causing your stress.

Once the sources of stress have been isolated, it's time to rearrange your priorities. No one is saying that quitting your job is necessarily the answer. On the other hand, adding some comforting activities to your day could change everything. Maybe a short nap or a brisk walk at lunchtime works for you. Or, how about stopping at the gym on the way home from work? Once you arrive home, things like reading a book or taking a bath may help you to unwind. What's important is to find your sources of comfort and work them into your day. After all, how effective are you at work or home if you're stressed out?

Another change you may have to make is working on your ability to discuss feelings. The expression of feelings has many positive benefits. For starters, it's a cathartic release for every human being. More importantly, discussing feelings has the ability to put your life in perspective. Negative thoughts tend to become blown out of proportion when they ruminate inside one's head. Sometimes, attaching words to these notions is all it takes to restore a realistic outlook.

Learn Specific Techniques to Help You Relax
There is no shortage of proven techniques for promoting relaxation, even during stressful situations. They can be as simple as deep-breathing and as complex as transcendental meditation. Seek out whatever interests you and learn how to relax. This doesn't have to be an expensive proposition as bookstores and libraries are filled with literature on the subject. There are also many DVDs and videos which teach beginning Yoga and Tai-Chi, two excellent ways to learn how to relax. If your budget permits, maybe an occasional therapeutic massage is in order.

Lastly, it is important to change your overall view on life, no matter what it takes. It's been proven over and over that one of the most important keys to a long, healthy, and happy life is having a positive outlook. If the aforementioned tips aren't creating this type of outlook, it may be necessary to seek professional help. Consult your health plan and see if it covers therapy of this nature. If not, use the Internet to find a support group in your area. Sometimes, just knowing you're not the only one with stress is enough to create a positive change. Good luck!

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