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Most of us consider stress a negative, but it actually covers a spectrum from good to bad and is vital to our survival, McEwen says. "The sweet spot is achieved when the kind of anxiety and arousal you experience while giving a speech or taking a test boosts your performance," he explains. The stress hormones optimize brain-circuit function, temporarily increasing memory and focus. They also help ferry your immune system's white blood cells to wherever they're needed in the body to combat infection and repair tissue, bolstering your defenses. With each surge of short-term stress, an army of hormones is deployed to sweep away potentially harmful pathogens, McEwen says.
Yet there's a fine line between intermittent, good-for-you stress and the chronic sort -- such as having financial problems or enduring a rocky relationship -- that wreaks havoc on your well-being. "If the hormones hang around too long or are released in very large doses, the body's immune defenses suffer, leading to the sort of inflammation commonly seen in disorders such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer," McEwen says.
Whether stress is ultimately helpful or harmful comes down to how well you handle the recovery period -- the window right after the worrisome event ends. "Many people have a tendency to turn short-term distress, like being caught in a traffic jam, into chronic anxiety because they don't take steps to bring their heart rate and blood pressure back into balance," says Sarah Pressman, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Kansas. You can't always control what stresses you out, but you can control your reaction to it. Here's how to rein in your response to common stressors and reap the positive effects.Stressful situation: Asking your boss for a raise
A smile -- even a fake one -- can short-circuit tension. A recent study published in Psychological Science found that people who forced a grin during stressful tasks bounced back faster than those who didn't. "We may have evolved the ability to smile as a way to signal to others that we're not a threat," says Pressman, a coauthor of the study. "And when there's no threat present, everyone feels less anxious." So when you're having a difficult discussion with your manager, flashing your pearly whites may take the edge off. "Research shows that positive emotions are contagious," Pressman says. If you smile, your boss likely will too. That will make her perceive you as comfortable and confident, which will probably make her more receptive to your request.Stressful situation: An argument with your guy
Thanks to hormones, a spat with your significant other can leave you fuming for hours. "The estrogen in our brains promotes the release of cortisol for 24 hours after a fight," says Marianne Legato, PhD, the founder and director of the Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University. "This makes the memory of the quarrel even more pronounced and explains why women continue worrying about it well into the next day." Combat this hard-wired reaction by lacing up your sneakers and going for a walk, Legato suggests. Just 30 minutes will do the trick: Light activity reduced cortisol levels, according to a study in Journal of Endocrinology Investigation. But resist the urge to pound out your anger with a hard-core workout. Intense sweat sessions caused cortisol levels to spike up to 83 percent.
Instead of striding off solo, invite your partner along if you can stand it, says Michael McKee, PhD, a clinical health psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. "The sooner you make up, even if you agree to disagree, the sooner you'll eliminate what you may sense as a threat to your relationship," he says. "When that worry lingers, it sets off chronic stress, which is much more difficult to overcome." Also good to know: There is a real benefit to make-up sex. The surge of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, which you experience during orgasm, creates a closer bond between you and your partner while lowering adrenaline and cortisol levels, McKee explains. Cuddle on!
You are three times more likely to have a heart attack if you've recently been in traffic than if you haven't been, German researchers found. "With traffic, the tension builds and builds, so by the time you get to where you're going, you're so irritated that the stress seeps through your entire day,? McKee says. Hit the brakes on your angry state while you're still bumper-to-bumper and use the time to learn something new. "Keep your iPod stocked with audio books, podcasts, or foreign-language lessons," he says. "Instead of focusing on how late you are, you'll channel your energy into something more productive." Making progress in any way -- even if it's just prepping for an imaginary trip to Positano -- will help you feel less anxious about being stalled. "Shifting your focus also limits how much time you spend fretting about the traffic, so you experience a more minor stress response than you otherwise would," McKee adds.Stressful situation: Waiting in line for your lunch
Rocking out a few sun salutations while waiting for your Cobb salad isn't exactly an option, but you can focus on your breathing -- the one part of your body's stress response that you can easily control. Try inhaling for five counts and exhaling for five counts for a total of six breaths a minute, McKee suggests. "This pattern matches your breathing rate when your body is at rest," he says. "It creates a feedback loop where your slowed breathing sends the all-clear signal to your brain, which stops the stress response." Be sure to breathe abdominally to maximize the benefit. "When you're tense, your breathing gets constricted and shallow," McKee adds. Counting your inhales and exhales and concentrating on feeling your stomach rise and fall will also distract you from the woman in line in front of you who's ordering panini for the entire office.Stressful situation: Buried under a pile of work
"You'd think the people at the top of the corporate food chain would be the most stressed because they have the most responsibility, but that's not the case," Pressman says. In fact, a recent Harvard study showed that executive-level leaders reported less anxiety and boasted lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than did those in nonsupervisory roles. The reason: Their jobs allow them to have plenty of control. Fortunately you don't have to wait for a promotion to watch your tension levels subside. "Research shows that simply feeling as if you have more control at work and at home can lower stress and improve health," Pressman explains. To keep crazy-busy times from commandeering your mood, make a list of all the things you need to get done during the day -- even chores like walking the dog, going to the gym, and cooking dinner. "It makes your tasks feel more manageable than when they're swirling around in your head," she says. "And as you cross off item after item, you experience a greater sense of accomplishment than when you focus on only what still needs to be done. You also gain more control over your to-dos, so you won't feel as anxious."Seven Signs You're Too Stressed
If you exhibit any one of these signs, chronic stress may be putting you on the road to depression. Take five to 10 minutes twice a day for deep, abdominal breathing (five seconds in, five seconds out) and do a daily workout of at least 30 minutes. Also consider asking your doc to refer you to a therapist for a stress assessment and treatment options.
Sources: Marianne Legato, PhD, the founder and director of the Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine at Columbia University; and Michael McKee, PhD, a clinical health psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, February 2013.