Stress can be a powerful enemy — or an exhilarating ally.
The stress response enables us to move and react quickly in threatening situations. And at times we want an extra dose of adrenaline, to spice up a performance when competing in sports, meeting deadlines or giving presentations.
This positive stress is termed "eustress'' and is the opposite of distress. It refers to the feeling of fulfillment or upon receiving good news.
These short-term bursts of adrenaline show no signs of long-term negative effects. Rather, it is chronic stress that causes serious biochemical changes.
One estimate is that at least 60 percent of our visits to the doctor are related to stress. Stress usually falls into one of three categories: social, environmental or physiological. Even your thoughts can become a source of stress (i.e., chronic worrying over everyday events).
"When people are convinced that something is going to go wrong, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Dr. Arthur Barsky, a psychiatrist at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Chronic stress affects practically every system in the body:
• It causes tension headaches, neck and shoulder tension, lower back aches and other muscular and joint pains.
• Stress increases vulnerability to infections and viral diseases. Chronic stress also can suppress production of cells needed to support the immune system.
• Stress plays havoc with the gastrointestinal system, causing upset stomachs and feelings of nausea.
• When stress becomes acute, your heart rate accelerates and blood pressure increases. The chronic release of stress hormones is one of the most potent risk factors for the heart; anger and hostility are the most toxic emotions.
Two large studies from the United Kingdom concluded that chronic stress is six times more likely to contribute to heart disease and cancer than high cholesterol and smoking.
If there is a hint of good news here, it is that our interpretation of events, not the event itself, determines the effect upon us.
"Every day brings a chance to practice stress or practice peace," says Joan Borysenko, a clinical psychologist and author of Inner Peace for Busy People.
If you're feeling overwhelmed, give these tips a try:
• Get moving. Exercise helps burn stress hormones and increases serotonin, the so-called "happy hormone.'' Even walking just 20 to 30 minutes a day can increase your energy level and improve your mood. Studies have shown that physically fit and active people manage stress more effectively.
• Don't be gloomy. Learn to be more optimistic and in control of your life.
When negative events occur, optimists tend to believe, "This too shall pass," and then find a way to get on with their life. Pessimists allow negative happenings to infiltrate their existence.
• Practice "positive self talk.'' Instead of saying, "I have to do this" or "I must do this," substitute "I would like to . . ." or "I want to . . ."
• Learn to say no. When your plate is filled with responsibilities, stop accepting more.
• Practice yoga. The postures (termed asanas) and breathing (pranayama) aim to integrate mind, body and spirit. These, with meditation and imagery, are stress-management techniques. Pilates and tai chi also deal with this mind-body connection.
• Enjoy a massage. A massage releases a natural relaxation response, softening tense muscles and slowing the nervous system.
• Breathe. When you begin to feel tense, your heart rate and blood pressure will elevate, causing you to breathe faster. Simply pausing and taking slow, deep breaths can help reduce your pulse and blood pressure.
Slowly inhale through your nose, exhale even more slowly through your mouth, pretending you are blowing out a candle.
Another benefit, notes neuroscientist Harvey Wichman of Claremont McKenna College: "When you give all your attention to managing your breathing, you stop thinking the thoughts that produced the arousal in the first place."
• Cultivate hobbies. They provide you with a mental time-out and can be most relaxing.
• Develop a sense of humor. How tense can you be when you are smiling or laughing?
• Enjoy a pet. Connecting with nature and/or pets helps negate the effects of stress.
• Give yourself the gift of silence. Aim for 15 to 20 minutes of "alone time" every day. Those quiet moments will help to clear your thoughts and slow your breathing.
If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning ANY exercise program. Sally Anderson, a trainer, is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. Write her in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.