1. Are You Under Stress?

You know you’re under stress when you rear-end the car in front of you on the way to work (oops!), make it to work three hours late and get fired (no!), then have your wallet stolen on the bus ride home (oh, that’s just perfect!). But what about the stress when you get engaged to the love of your life? Or, when you finally get the promotion of your dreams? Is it stressful to graduate from college, or start an exercise program, or binge on chocolate-chip cookies? You bet it is. What’s so stressful about a few chocolate chip cookies? Nothing, if you eat one or two chocolate-chip cookies now and then as part of a well-balanced diet. Plenty, if you deprive yourself of desserts for a month, then eat an entire bag of double-fudge chocolate chunk. Your body isn’t used to all that sugar. That’s stressful.

“Too much stress can cause dramatic health problems.”

2. Look Out for Change

Any kind of a change in your life can cause stress. Some of that stress feels good, even great. Stress isn’t, by definition, something bad, but it isn’t always good, either. In fact, it can cause dramatic health problems if you endure too much for too long. Stress isn’t just out-of-the-ordinary stuff, however. Stress can also be hidden and deeply imbedded in your life. Maybe you want to start your own business but you’re afraid to give up your current job. Maybe your family has communication problems but no one is willing to address the issue. You might even get stressed out when something goes right! Stress is a highly individual phenomenon.

3. Don’t Get So Wound Up!

We have lots of ways to describe the feelings of stress. Keyed up, wound up, geared up, fired up—all those expressions contain the word up because the stress response is, indeed, an “up” kind of experience. Muscles are pumped for action; senses are heightened; awareness is sharpened. And these feelings are useful, until they become too frequent. Constant stress exacts a heavy toll on the mind, body, and emotional well-being. Your health and happiness depend on responding to stress appropriately.

4. Determine What Stress Means to You

Most people have a preconceived notion of what stress is in general, but what does stress mean to you? Discomfort? Pain? Anxiety? Excitement? Fear? Uncertainty? These are mostly conditions stemming from stress. But what is stress itself? Stress is such a broad term, and there are so many different kinds of stress affecting so many people in so many different ways that the word stress may seem to defy definition. What is stressful to one person might be exhilarating to another. Stress has become a way of life for many, but that doesn’t mean we should sit back and accept the insidious effects of stress on our bodies, minds, and spirits.

5. Remember: You’re Not Alone

Almost everyone has experienced some kind of stress, and many people experience chronic stress, or constant, regular stress, every day of their lives. Some people handle stress pretty well, even when it is extreme. Others fall apart under stress that seems negligible to the outside world. What’s the difference? Some may have learned better coping mechanisms, but many researchers believe that people have an inherited level of stress tolerance. Some people can take a lot and still feel great and, in fact, do their best work under stress. Other people require very low-stress lives to function productively.

6. Don’t Give Up, Even if You’ve Been Here Before

You’ve probably tried stress management techniques before. Perhaps you just haven’t found a stress management technique that fits your unique life. Your personality, the kind of stress you are trying to relieve, and the way you tend to handle stress all factor into your stress management success. For example, someone who is physically drained by too much interaction with people may not be helped by strategies that encourage increased social activities with friends. Someone else who is stressed by the lack of a support system might find profound benefit in increased social activity. It all depends on who you are.

7. Why Does Stress Happen?

So what’s the point of stress? Stress is a relatively complex interaction of external and internal processes caused by something relatively simple: the survival instinct. Life is full of stimuli. Some we enjoy; some we don’t. But our bodies are programmed, through millions of years of learning how to survive, to react in certain ways to stimuli that are extreme. If you should suddenly find yourself in a dangerous situation—you step in front of a speeding car, or you lose your balance and teeter on the edge of a cliff—your body will react in a way that will best ensure your survival. You might move extra fast. You might pitch yourself back to safety.

8. The Fight-or-Flight Response

Whether you are being chased around the savanna by a hungry lion, or you’re being followed around the parking lot by an aggressive car salesperson, your body recognizes an alarm and pours stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, into your bloodstream. Adrenaline produces what is called the fight-or-flight response, increasing your heart rate and breathing rate and sending blood straight to your vital organs. It also helps your blood to clot faster and draws blood away from your skin (so that if you’re injured you won’t bleed as much) and also from your digestive tract (so you won’t waste time with intestinal troubles). And cortisol flows through your body to keep the stress response responding as long as the stress continues. But if you were to experience the constant release of adrenaline and cortisol every day, it would tire you out. You’d start to experience exhaustion, physical pain, a diminished ability to concentrate and remember, and increased frustration, irritability, and insomnia.

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