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Relax More, Stress Less

Manage Your Stress

Feel as if you’re about to snap? Learn what causes stress, along with proven strategies for controlling it.

By Nancy Smith
Woman relaxing in a hammockThayer Allyson Gowdy

How Stress Works

In an ideal world, stressors such as fire alarms and demanding bosses would simply keep you out of danger and on your toes. In the real world, however, these things can make you sick. Here’s why.

The Stress Response

In its most basic form, the stress response is known as “fight or flight,” and it swings into action whenever you’re confronted with a novel or threatening situation. “If you step off the curb in front of an oncoming bus, your body reacts automatically to protect you,” says Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions (Henry Holt, $16,
In a matter of seconds and without even thinking, you begin pumping out brain chemicals and hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Your heart rate accelerates, oxygen-bearing red blood cells flood the bloodstream, the immune system gears up for the possibility of injury, and energy resources are diverted to your muscles, brain, heart, and lungs and away from functions, such as digestion and hunger, that can wait until the crisis has passed. Meanwhile, the brain releases a cascade of endorphins, the body’s natural opiates, to dull the pain of those potential injuries.
You’re ready for action, whether it’s a full-out battle or a hasty retreat―in this case, fleeing back onto the sidewalk to escape the speeding bus. When the danger has passed, all these systems are restored to their normal resting state. “Your stress response makes you get out of danger,” says Sternberg. “Without it, you’d be dead.”
Many of the physical changes that energize you to get out of the way of the bus are the same ones at work in more positive situations. Your heart races when you’re falling in love. Your palms grow sweaty on the first day of a new job. How do you know if it’s happiness or stress? You label what you’re feeling: Your racing heart and sweaty palms come first, and whether you perceive yourself to be excited or happy or stressed depends on your assessment of the circumstances. In other words, you’re not running because you’re scared; you’re scared because you’re running. “Our stress isn’t a result of the event but of the view we take of it,” says Ellen J. Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. “If the event is seen as negative, then we’ve set ourselves up to experience stress.”
Things go awry when stress persists and your body has no opportunity to return to its resting state. Escape the oncoming bus and you’re obviously out of danger. Calm returns both physiologically and emotionally. Your pulse slows, and the panic subsides. No problem. But getting back to normal is much more complicated when the source of your stress is constant and negative and when fighting or fleeing is not an option: when you’re constantly worrying about not having enough money to retire, for example, or when you’re trapped in an unfulfilling job. “The human mind is so powerful, the connections between perception and physiology so strong,” says Bruce S. McEwen, M.D., “that we can set off a stress response by just imagining ourselves in a confrontation with the boss.”
Emotional stressors such as frustration with a job or a relationship can accumulate until the fight-or-flight response is constantly ramping up. “We become overloaded,” says McEwen, who is also a professor of neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University, in New York City. “As a result, we begin to feel tired, edgy, and rundown. Eventually this state veers toward illness.” Unless, that is, you put the brakes on from time to time. McEwen and his colleagues found that rats kept under significant stress for five weeks developed a seriously impaired immune response. But if the stress was alleviated for one week, the immune system began to bounce back.

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