16 Apr 2014

The Upside of Stress

StressedWomanWe all know too much stress is bad for your health. Chronic stress can lead to depression and set off dangerous inflammation in the body, increasing your risk for heart disease, obesity, and breast cancer.

You can’t open a magazine these days without seeing an article that recommends reducing the stress in our lives.

But, is there an upside to stress? 

As it turns out, there is.

We need those powerful fight-or-flight hormones our bodies produce when we’re about to be run over by a bus or when confronted with an unexpected, needed-it-yesterday deadline at work.

When your brain perceives physical or psychological stress, it starts pumping cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine into the body. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure increases, your senses sharpen, and a rise in blood glucose invigorates you…making you ready to rock!

Or leap away from the bus.

Short-term (less than 24 hours) stress also triggers the production of protective chemicals and increases activity in immune cells that boost your body’s defenses. Studies suggest that this surge makes vaccinations more effective, and may even protect against certain types of cancer.

Small amounts of stress hormones can also sharpen your memory. In 2009, University at Buffalo researchers found that when rats were stressed by being forced to swim, they remembered their way through mazes far better than rats that chilled out instead.

Keeping Your Balance

The key, of course, is balance.

Too little stress and you’re bored and unmotivated.

Too much and you become not just grouchy, but sick.

It’s important to pay attention to your body’s stress meter to keep it from heading into the danger zone. Mental fogginess, frequent colds, increased sensitivity to aches and pains are all signs of an overwhelmed immune system. Autoimmune diseases like psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease may flare up.

If you find yourself crossing the line to negative stress, try one of these simple strategies to move you more back to the positive side.

  1. Connect with a friend. Stressful experiences create opportunities for social bonding. These interactions subsequently lower cortisol levels and the amount of stress your body perceives.
  2. Lavender! This is my personal favorite. Research has demonstrated that the smell of lavender reduces stress levels. I keep a bottle of lavender essential oil close by at all times. It’s my instant relaxation method.
  3. Don’t panic. Take a break and put some distance between you and your stressor. Doing so allows you to think more clearly and create a step-by-step plan for working through a problem. Women are blessed with creative, intuitive and analytical thinking skills…use them!
  4. Try deep breathing, meditation or exercise. All of these things can help shut down the flow of stress-inducing hormones.

It’s All in How You Look at It

Stress is a doubled-edged sword that affects everyone differently. It’s mostly a matter of perception. A ride on a speeding roller coaster is torture for some, while others race for the next ride. Multi-tasking or living in a hectic urban environment is a thrill for some, a confusing sensory overload for others.

The goal isn’t an absence of stress. It’s an unavoidable reality in our world today. Besides, without it, life would be a pretty dull. The key is channeling energy that stress creates into productive action.


Dr. Anna Garrett

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