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Why You Stress and How to Stop

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Stress side-effects can include headache, weight gain, and insomnia. Here, a guide to relaxation to lessen stress symptoms and prevent stress altogether.

How Stress Affects the Body

There's an incredible amount of stress out there these days. In a recent survey, 80 percent of Americans reported that they are beyond frazzled. Stress not only wreaks havoc on us emotionally, it also has a powerful effect on our bodies and our brains, literally aging us before our time, according to groundbreaking research. The happy news: The damage appears to be reversible -- and the most effective weapon is exercise.

Your Body on Stress

Why are we so frenzied today? One answer is that "there's more pressure to compete, and all the technology that brings work home means we never get any respite," says Michael G. Wetter, PsyD, a Pleasanton, California-based clinical psychologist and diplomat of the American Psychotherapy Association.

The constant grind exacts a physical toll. "Stress has been linked to heart disease and high blood pressure, and it's a risk factor for type 2 diabetes," says Wetter. Our bodies are biologically programmed to respond to challenges by releasing a flood of the hormone cortisol, prompting what's called the fight-or-flight response. "When our bodies and minds perceive danger, blood pressure goes up and the digestive system shuts down," explains Wetter. The problem is, given the chronic stress so many of us experience today, "the body never has a chance to recuperate," he says.

Just ask Rachel Capaldi, 26, an assistant bank-office manager in Shelby Township, Michigan. The pressure of holding a full-time job while going to school left her overwhelmed. To cope, she binged on junk food; in eight months, she gained 22 pounds. By 7 p.m. every night, Rachel says, she was exhausted and ready for bed. "I felt a lot older than my years."

No wonder. In a study of moms, two-thirds of whom were dealing with highly stressful situations, those who reported the most stress "had immune cells that looked as if they'd aged an additional 10 years or so," says Elissa Epel, PhD, an assistant professor in residence in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. "An aged immune system doesn't function as well, which may contribute to the body aging." Stress also seems to alter our hormones, creating an imbalance between those that are anabolic (promoting tissue growth, lean mass, and bone) and those that are catabolic (breaking down bone and tissue for fuel). As a result, says Epel, our insides age faster than we do.

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