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If you're a human mammal, however, stress comes from something more insidious than a toothy predator: anxiety triggered by the passive-aggressive boss, the 30-year mortgage, and the job of caring for children as well as the ill parent who believes General MacArthur wants him to lead a division into Pyongyang Province.
No wildebeest would understand these fears, but the perceived threats spark the same physiological survival responses that crocodile attacks do. Here's where modern stress bites your body and how to fight back.
Ease your anxiety with these 52 tips to help you banish stress from your life.
Stress Spot: Your Brain Chronic secretion of the stress hormone cortisol can trigger memory loss, depression, and three-bourbon lunches.
A Canadian study of 2,737 employees found that when people thought their poor job performance could seriously impact their coworkers, company, or environment, their job stress increased. Workers who didn't see their jobs as careers were less likely to report stress. The lesson: Take a day off. The company won't go under if you're AWOL for 9 hours.(Note: This does not apply to air-traffic controllers.)
Stress Spot: Your Hair Researchers at the University of Western Ontario may have found a new way to measure chronic stress: Pluck a few hairs. They took follicle samples from more than 100 men, half of whom were hospitalized for heart attacks, and found that hair cortisol was higher in the heart patients. Since hair grows about 1 centimeter a month, researchers used 3-centimeter samples as a record of stress levels over the previous 3 months. Scientists say the findings bolster the theory that chronic stress contributes to heart attack just as acute stress does.
The Fix: Earn a promotion.
With power comes control, suggests research from the Columbia University business school. Study participants were designated as either leaders or subordinates, with the leaders given duties that granted them a sense of power. Meanwhile, half the people in both groups were asked to steal $100 and lie about it. Subordinates who had to lie showed physical stress reactions and high cortisol levels. But lying bosses displayed no such markers of stress, suggesting that even in stressful situations (forced to lie), people feel little or no anxiety if they have power and control.
Stress Spot: Your Nervous System When you're stressed, hormones flood your body, helping you focus your attention, sharpening your vision, and preparing your muscles to take action.
The Fix: Tap the power.
For short periods, facing adversity can energize you to handle challenges. Recently, University at Buffalo researchers monitoring 2,398 people found that those who'd experienced some adversity scored higher on measures of mental health and life satisfaction than those who'd seen either high levels of adversity or none at all.
"In moderation, whatever doesn't kill us may indeed make us stronger," says study author Mark Seery, Ph.D.
Stress Spot: Your Muscles Neck and back tension caused by mental stress, plus long days spent hunched over a computer keyboard, can trigger pain.
The Fix: Try the corner stretch.
Stand facing the corner of a room. Raise your elbows to shoulder height, and place your forearms, elbows, and palms against each wall. Lean in to flex your chest and back muscles. Hold for 15 seconds, breathing deeply. Do this every 2 hours or whenever you feel tight.
Exercise helps reduce stress levels. Build a stronger upper back and improve your overall posture with this shoulder workout.
Stress Spot: Your Gut Increased stomach acid from stress can churn your gut and loosen your bowels. Stress can even alter the way your body processes fat, causing you to store more of it in your abdomen.
The Fix: Twist yourself into a pretzel and laugh, laugh, laugh.
"Laughter yoga" practitioners swear that combining yogic breathing and stretching techniques with forced laughter helps them cope better with life's stresses. Studies have already demonstrated the ability of yoga to ease stress and lower blood pressure. And laughing appears to do the same. For example: Two reports presented at the 2009 American College of Sports Medicine's annual meeting showed that people who watched comedies had more-pliable blood vessels and improved bloodflow for up to 24 hours after the chuckling commenced.
Stress Spot: Your DNA Not only can stress make you flatulent, but it can screw with your DNA too. A 24-7 bath of stress hormones can cause telomeres to shorten. Telomeres are genetic structures that protect the ends of chromosomes; if they shorten too much, cells can no longer multiply.The
A recent Harvard study found that the physiological response from meditation, tai chi, and breathing exercises can counteract cellular damage from stress.
Just breathe: How to meditate.
Goodbye Medication, Hello Meditation
Zeidan taught study participants how to meditate during four 20-minute sessions. Then, while meditating, the subjects had a hot, 120-degree pad placed on their right calves for about 6 minutes while undergoing PASL MRI scans—a form of functional MRI testing that better captures longer brain processes.
Every subject felt less pain while meditating than before their meditation training.
“What our study found is that you only need a small amount of training—just over an hour’s worth—to be able to meditate in a way that successfully reduces pain,” Zeidan says.
If you continue meditating regularly, the pain relief effects last even longer. “The incredible thing about proper meditation is that the more you do it, the more it becomes a part of you,” he continues. “There were prior studies on monks who had incredible amounts of meditation training, and they didn’t even have to meditate to reduce pain. It had become automatic.”
The PASL MRI scans showed meditation works by affecting the brain on multiple levels. “It shuts off the primary somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for feeling sensation, while at the same time activating other parts of the brain responsible for attention, mood, emotions and reward processing,” Zeidan says. “We don’t know 100 percent how meditation shuts off the primary somatosensory cortex, but we think the activity of the other brain regions lowers its activation.” Previous research has also found that meditation actually changed the makeup of your mind.
While Zeidan is reluctant to prescribe meditation as a lone painkiller, he does note it has its place. “It can reduce the need for medication, and ultimately lower related costs. Plus, there are absolutely no side effects outside of improved well being.”
If that isn’t enough to convince you, meditation has also been shown to reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and even lead to better sex. Ready to give it a shot? Here’s a course in mindfulness meditation 101.
Assume the Position
“You can lie down, walk, eat, or sit,” Dr. Zeidan says. Do whatever makes you comfortable and makes it easy for you to focus.
Feel Your Breath
Focus on your breath—and this is important—how it feels. “Follow it as it enters at the nose, notice any tingling, scan your body for sensations,” Dr. Zeidan says. “This is where you should transition from thinking to observing,” offers Mallika Chopra, daughter of Deepak and creator of intent.com along with a series of meditation videos. “Once you get into a rhythm with your breath, observe how your breath moves in and out, noticing how it makes your body feel.”
Racing Thoughts? Let Them Go
If you get distracted, don’t worry about it—and definitely don’t feel guilty, notes Chopra. “You could experience a million thoughts in one sitting, and it’s important not to ignore them,” Zeidan says. “Instead, acknowledge them, and realize they’re just a moment in your life. If you’re angry, for example, acknowledge that, but then see your anger as a moment, and let it pass.” A trick to keep from dwelling on a thought: If you notice your mind wandering, go back to observing your breath.
Then again, some pains are worth enduring. Here are 14 Pains that Really Make You Stronger.