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Stressed Out and Sick About It

How to keep chronic stress from undermining your health

SATURDAY, Feb. 12, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- Whether you're caring for a loved one who's ill, coping with the loss of a job, or recovering from an abusive relationship, it's a good bet that you're experiencing some level of stress.

Even crawling through bumper-to-bumper traffic each morning is enough to cause some people to lose their cool.

Being exposed to these stressful situations day-after-day, year-after-year can be mentally and emotionally draining -- sometimes to the point of breakdown. And the physical toll is huge. Stress can put you at risk for high blood pressure and heart disease, trigger headaches and asthma attacks, and exacerbate other medical conditions.

Some psychologists say stressed-out Americans are an increasingly common breed.

With the war in Iraq, the threat of terrorism, uncertain economic times, broken marriages and wayward children to worry about, "I'd say that we have a whole series of events coming together now that are more profound than any other time in history," said Don R. Powell, a licensed psychologist and president of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine, which provides stress management training to corporate employees.

Learning to cope with stress becomes all that more important, he asserted.

Now might be the time to do something about it. February is Wise Health Consumer Month, a time when Americans will be urged to empower themselves to make better health decisions. That includes learning new ways to manage stress.

"Stress is the body's non-specific response to any increased demand that's placed upon it," Powell said. Even positive changes -- getting married, changing careers -- can be stress-provoking. "You can be under a lot of stress from winning the lottery, just as you could be from losing your job," he said.

Studies show a little bit of stress actually can be a good thing. Short-term stress, the type that produces a fight-or-flight response, boosts the immune system, preparing it for possible infection or injury, according to a major review of stress-and-immunity studies in the July 2004 issue of Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

But when stress becomes chronic or prolonged, it can wear you down.

"In general, we think that anything that lasts longer than a fight or a flight -- a few minutes to maybe a few hours -- marks the transition from a beneficial to a harmful stress response," said Suzanne C. Segerstrom, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington and a co-author of the review.

Older people and those who already have compromised immune systems seem to be particularly vulnerable, the analysis revealed.

What's not known is whether the relationship between stress and disease is due to changes in the immune system. It seems plausible for some conditions, such as viral cancers and heart disease, Segerstrom allowed, "but it hasn't been tested."

Just how stressed-out are we? According to the APAs online Help Center:

  • Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
  • Seventy-five percent to 90 percent of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
  • Stress is linked to the six leading causes of death -- heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.

There's even evidence linking stress with premature aging. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco found that prolonged psychological stress affects molecules that are believed to play a role in cellular aging and, possibly, the onset of disease. In the study, the immune cells of women who care for chronically ill children aged faster than those of women with healthy kids.

So what can people do to lessen the effects of stress on the body? Powell teaches a technique to help victims of stress revamp how they think about things. A traffic snarl needn't set your teeth clenching. Just turn on some soothing music.

"Perception is everything," Powell said.

For the person who's weary of running late or missing deadlines, a course in time management may be just the ticket.

Traditional relaxation techniques, including meditation, deep muscle relaxation and hypnosis, also can help a person de-stress. So can a good night's sleep -- a minimum of seven hours each night. And don't forget proper nutrition and exercise: these things can keep you healthy and better able to cope with stress.

More information

The American Psychological Association has more on how stress affects us.

SOURCES: Don R. Powell, Ph.D., president, American Institute for Preventive Medicine, Farmington Hills, Mich.; Suzanne C. Segerstrom, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky, Lexington; American Psychological Association, Washington, D.C.; Nov. 30, 2004, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; June 2004 Psychological Bulletin
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