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Find Your Stress Sweet Spot

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Feeling stressed? Consider yourself blessed. Stress is essential to a happy, healthy life. Really! Recent research has shown that there's an "anxiety sweet spot," in which short bursts of stress are actually good for us. "The adrenaline our bodies produce when we feel threatened makes our brain function better, sharpening our focus, improving our mental and physical performance, and making us feel ready for anything," says Bruce McEwen, PhD, a neuroendocrinologist at Rockefeller University. Bonus: Your immune system also gets a boost, which can make you healthier too. So stop fretting and read on to learn how to stay perfectly on point.

Turn All Stress into Good Stress

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!

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2/4/2013 05:46:04 PM Report Abuse

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