We’re not going to tell you to rid stress from your life. For starters, it’s probably not possible: Even if you spent your days lying in a hammock, there’d be something to worry about. Secondly, stress isn’t always a bad thing.
While that might come as a big surprise to most people, think back to the times when you felt an overwhelming amount of stress — perhaps when you were studying for an exam or preparing for a big presentation. Most likely, your stress pushed you to carry out your goals.
“For us to accomplish anything, it takes some kind of stress,” says Tom Morledge, MD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “A little bit of stress helps get us motivated.”
The Stress Response
The body’s stress response can be triggered by a surprisingly wide array of situations and problems, from sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, to being challenged in a meeting, to losing sleep. Even endless ruminating over the past and fears about the future can set it off.
Once it’s triggered, your brain and hormones move quickly. First, your hypothalamus, an almond-size control center deep within your brain, sends messages to your adrenal glands. These glands then send cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and adrenaline, the chemical messenger that causes you to jump when someone surprises you, through your bloodstream. The hormones pull sugar from your liver and fatty acids from your fat cells to push your muscles into action.
As the stress cascade continues, your heart races, your breath shortens and your pupils dilate. Adrenaline squashes your appetite so you can concentrate. Finally, stress hormones help your brain take photographlike pictures of what’s happening at that very instant — perhaps so you will never forget it.
It might be a comfort to know that your body’s stress response is perfectly natural, as hardwired as feeling hungry or tired. The fight-or-flight response helped our ancestors run from tigers and survive famines.
Today, when those types of threats are fewer, Dr. Morledge says that some of us — particularly retirees — could stand a bit of productive stress (note the word productive). “Adding the good kind of stress is basically adding meaningful challenges to our lives,” he explains. “Projects and deadlines energize people.”
The Stress Hangover
While the stress response may sound energizing and exciting, it soon delivers a fatiguing hangover. Too much adrenaline leaves you burned-out the next day, slowing your reflexes. Your sex drive drops, which is nature’s way of keeping you attuned to the threat at hand. And cortisol can make you susceptible to viral infections, such as outbreaks of cold sores, since it lowers immune system resistance.
And those are just the short-term effects. The problem is that many people today feel like they’re on the edge every day. Whether you’re in a bad relationship, have a difficult job or are simply inclined to worry, it’s as if the alarm signal in your brain is switched permanently on.
The Exercise Cure
Turns out that stress is a bit like chili powder: The key is adding enough to keep life spicy but not enough to burn. The first clues that things are getting out of hand, Dr. Morledge says, are fatigue and irritability. Also, when you notice that previously enjoyable activities don’t have the same kind of magic for you. “There is a real disengagement in people who are overstressed,” Dr. Morledge says.
Regular aerobic exercise is a good way to hold the balance. Running, swimming, biking and even brisk walking prompt your brain to release endorphins, natural chemicals that affect your brain almost like opiates, making you “feel no pain” and producing a high. Exercise also helps you sleep, one of the body’s natural medicines for stress. And as long as you don’t use your exercise time to brood over a problem, even a gentle walk or a slow bike ride will take your focus off your problems, opening your mind to more creative problem-solving.
Forms of muscle relaxation, such as yoga, hot baths and massage, help counteract a physical symptom of stress: muscle tension. Tightness in what’s known as the tension triangle, your brow, jaw, neck and shoulders, commonly accompanies the fight-or-flight response, and seems to be a frequent companion to the stress associated with computer-focused office work. Simply getting up and moving around can help. Kneading muscles gently, applying a warm-water compress or stretching can also ease the muscles back to their normal state.