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How to guard yourself against effects of stress

By Sherry Stripling

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Would you stay in a bad marriage if you knew that the chronic stress could be hardening your arteries and raising your risk of a heart attack? Would you put up with an oppressive boss if you knew what happened to rats that endured stress for several hours a day? Their stress hormones soared, then dropped. Hey, they could handle it. Or could they?

After 21 days, the rats fell apart -- anxiety, aggression, weakened immune systems. The nerve cells in their memories began to atrophy.

It's not the acute stress that gets us, according to stress researcher Bruce McEwen, it's the chronic stress of ongoing, day-to-day problems. Fighting for a life balance isn't easy, but understanding what we're doing to ourselves might be the motivation we need to make changes.

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Why do we need stress to survive?

We need stress to get out of bed in the morning and to stay focused. But when the brain thinks we're being threatened, the physical response is big.

Breathing accelerates, heart rate and blood pressure rise, and blood vessels in the skin constrict so that, if we're injured, we won't bleed as much, writes Bruce McEwen, author of "The End of Stress As We Know It," and head of the neuroendocrinology lab at Rockefeller University in New York. Infection-fighting white blood cells rush to the ready, and the body releases glucose to mobilize the body. When the perceived or real danger passes, the body begins the complex process of calming down.

What's wrong with that?

Nothing, if we're trying to leap from a runaway car or meet a quick deadline. But if we get flooded with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol every time we deal with impossible workloads, traffic jams or anything else that we can't control, our defenses begin to turn on us. The body loses its ability to go back to a baseline calm.

What can happen to our health?

Plenty. Diabetes, depression, heart disease and rheumatoid arthritis are among the diseases linked to stress.

Wonder why you still have that potbelly even if you're otherwise thin?

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High levels of the hormone cortisol and increased glucose in the blood send fat to the waist for storage instead of the thighs or bottom. That's great if food is in short supply, but otherwise it adds to the risk of heart disease and cancer.

How can you find better balance?

Watch what you eat and when you eat. Large meals elevate the stress hormone cortisol. And large, fatty meals eaten late can send more bad fats to the midriff.

Increase your social circles. More than 10 studies show that people who have good social support have a lower risk of death over a defined period of time.

Resist the demands on your time.

Follow your grandmother's advice: Exercise regularly, eat healthful food and get a good night's sleep.

Monitor the information you take in. The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation and Nilgiri Press suggests that you pick your favorite way to keep informed and entertained and limit yourself to just that.

Find what works to keep you calm, which could be meditation, deep breathing, yoga or just going for a walk. Exercise is not only a great stress reducer but it encourages a sense of well-being.

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