Stress, good and bad, is part of life. Here's how to control the worst of it so that good stress can work for us when we need it.
by Dorothy Foltz-Gray
Zen is not my middle name. I apply obligation and pressure the way other people apply sunscreen—until it seeps through my pores. Then, my stress alarms start swirling like the red light on a police car: You’re late. The fridge is empty. The deadline was yesterday. Even on Sunday, when I lie, sarcophagus-like, under a pile of restful newspapers, at the back of my noggin I see the glow of the red light. My brain just won’t shut off to give me a blinking break from feeling like the cartoon character with her finger in an electrical socket, frazzled up to my fractured eyeballs. For once, I’d like to know just what all the stress is about. Why do our bodies churn like angry turbines? Is stress just some antiquated throwback we don’t need? Is its internal commotion helping or hurting us? Is it something we have no control over— or can we harness it, parceling it out only when we need its motivating force? I’m on a mission to answer these questions.
Stress, THE GOOD GUY
So, what exactly is this monster called stress that keeps me up at night and driven by day? For starters, it’s not a monster—or at least it’s not trying to be. Stress, in the short term, is my defender, says Gabor Maté, M.D., a physician in Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection (Wiley). “Acute stress is simply a necessary self-protective mechanism—the body’s fight or- flight response,” he says. “An emotion like fear may trigger the response, but it’s a physiological reaction that you may or may not be aware of.” This fight-or-flight response was at its best for our forebears facing hungry lions. A stress episode then was a short—albeit complicated—burst, revving up every body system to win a battle or get away. My forebear’s brain—in particular the frontal cortex, the brain’s executive center—sent a red alert to the hypothalamus, the hormonal control center, triggering a flood of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. “The cortisol elevates blood sugar levels, mobilizing energy for a quick escape,” says Maté. “The adrenaline provides more energy to fight.” At the same time, this cocktail of stress hormones prompts the heart to quadruple the amount of blood it pumps, from about 5 quarts to 20 quarts a minute, providing more energy. But the blood travels a different route, away from the skin, gut and kidneys to the muscles, so that energy can be used to fight or flee. Blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rates increase, the airways dilate, and the liver starts converting glycogen—the raw material of our body’s fuel—into glucose, or blood sugar, again for power to battle or retreat. In modern times, of course, we’re not confronting hungry animals. But our bodies react exactly the same way, say, if a car swerves into our lane or our child slips off the seesaw. Our entire body mobilizes to turn away from the feckless car or catch the falling child.
However, despite these crucial—sometimes lifesaving—benefits of stress, most of us obsess about it like we do the bad neighbor we can’t get rid of. And so do the media, either telling us constantly how stressed out we are or giving us something else to stress about. “Every ad I see is for some illness or disability in the body and spirits,” says Judith Orloff, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life (Three Rivers Press). “The media program us to be stressed out and sick.”
When “good” stress GOES BAD
We no longer live in a world of the occasional threat. Our “lions”—24/7 access to information, long work hours, traffic jams, tough marriages, errant kids—are everywhere. But even seemingly innocuous aspects of our lives are stressors, says Brad Lichtenstein, N.D., a naturopathic physician and assistant professor at Bastyr University in Seattle. “Stress is any force exerted on the mind and body,” Lichtenstein explains. “So, by definition even gravity is stress, exercise is stress, eating is stress.” Unfortunately, our bodies haven’t caught up with modernity, and they are paying a scary price for the fairly constant fight-or-flight response our frenetic lives seem to require.
Candance Reaves, 55, a writer in Seymour, Tenn., spent 10 years caring for her dying mother. After her mother’s death two years ago, Reaves developed depression, anxiety, and a constant pain in her shoulders and neck. “That was where the stress manifested itself after my mother died,” she says. “It was the culmination of the stress that I felt being pulled one way or the other over 10 years. I didn’t have a life.” What Reaves endured—and what most of us experience to varying degrees—was unremitting stress, a modern phenomenon that takes a very different toll on our bodies than a quick burst of stress that resolves within minutes. The problem with a chronic stress response is that you produce so much cortisol that your adrenal glands—the factories that produce and regulate our stress hormones—poop out, says Lichtenstein. The result? Constant fatigue, emotional chaos and decreased immunity. In fact, a number of studies have shown that stress has a direct effect on the immune system. For example, research conducted at Ohio State University in 2008 found that older caregivers of family members with dementia did not respond well to vaccines, had less defense against viruses as well as more inflammation and accelerated aging of their cells compared with adults who were not caregivers.
A similar 2004 University of California, San Francisco, study of middle-aged mothers looked at their telomeres, DNA proteins that are markers of biological aging. Thirty-nine moms were caring for an ill child and 19 for a well one. The chronically stressed mothers with sick kids had shorter telomeres than the moms of healthy children; researchers surmised this was about a decade’s difference in terms of aging. And the effect of chronic stress on the immune system is just the start. “Adrenaline increases blood pressure and damages your heart, increasing your risk of stroke,” says Maté. “Cortisol gives you ulcers and puts fat on your body in a way that promotes heart disease and diabetes.” In fact, Maté believes that chronic stress plays some part in all chronic illnesses. The psychological ravages are just as brutal. As Judith Orloff notes, long-term stress depletes the body of serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter: “That makes you depressed and cloudy, so you can’t concentrate. With chronic adrenaline, you’re also hyper and more irritable. Everything becomes a big deal because it’s hard not to sweat the small stuff.
Leslie Levine, 51, a writer and mother of two in Northbrook, Ill., knows all too well the dangers of sweating the small stuff, as she stresses over whether to take store-bought or homemade cookies to a lake-side picnic. “I wish I was one of those mothers who wouldn’t think twice about buying the cookies at Costco. But me, I think, ‘Do I take the cookies out and wrap them in aluminum foil so it looks like I made them?’ ” Such indecision doesn’t come from wimpy genes. “It’s because sometimes I have to be three places at once,” says Levine. “I often find myself wondering, ‘What do I have to do today so that at 5 o’clock when my kids get home, I’m not a bitch on wheels?’ ”
Trading bad stress FOR GOOD
What we need, of course, is to get a handle on stress, to ease it back like we do a fussy child. Our health will suffer if we don’t, and so will our ability to respond to stress when necessary. After all, good stress is our “on” light, the power behind meeting deadlines, getting the dinner cooked before the guests arrive, or exercising instead of reaching for the ice cream. It powers motivation.
Certainly, that’s true for Erin Munroe, 35, a child and adolescent therapist and mother of an 11-month-old in Boston: “I used to have a job with summers off, and I didn’t know how to function without some stress. I needed to find a way to be productive.” But Munroe hit her limits when her son cried nonstop for his first 14 weeks of life. “I was still working full time, taking care of my child, keeping the house clean and trying to be perfect. I was breastfeeding and felt really ill, and I ended up with a breast infection.” Munroe had reached the point, as Maté describes it, when the body says no. If we’re “on” all the time, our motor no longer revs. Thom E. Lobe, M.D., founder and director of the Beneveda Medical Group in Beverly Hills, Calif., describes it this way: “When we’re stressed, our adrenals glands are spent. And then we press the gas when we really need to go and nothing happens.” In a sense, we become less attuned to our own body’s alarms, says Kim Turk, LMBT, director of massage services at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C. “It’s called somatic numbing—when the mind and body are completely disconnected,” she says. “Like a mom in a grocery store whose kid is yelling at her but she doesn’t hear him anymore, we stop listening to our bodies. Or when you’re tight in your neck and shoulders, but you have no idea that you are.”
So, how to get to our happy place? We know that stress, good and bad, is part of life. So how can we control the worst of it so that good stress can work for us when we need it? Here are the key steps experts insist on.
1. Run a priority scan
Once you know what’s keeping your lights on 24/7, you can figure which ones to turn low. When her mother became ill and died seven years ago, Rebecca Brooks, 40, a mom of two sons and president of a public relations firm in New York City, knew family had to be her focus. “I realized then that I couldn’t manage everything myself,” she says. Brooks learned to delegate and prioritize. She beefed up her staff, and she started leaving work at the office. “Now when the kids have something school-related, I’m always there,” she says.
2. Listen to your gut
“Part of stress reduction is learning to listen to what your gut tells you about your life, about people, about a situation,” says Orloff. “Ask, ‘Does my energy go up or down when I’m around this person? My stress level? How do I feel about this job? Did I leave the job interview feeling sick?’ Factor the answers into your decisions.” Mary Saunders, L.Ac., an acupuncturist in Boulder, Colo., agrees. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s going on that makes me feel this way—overwhelmed, bitchy, shorttempered?’ ” she says. In other words, you have to face what’s stressing you out rather than turn away from it.
3. Calm your system down
Of course, it may take more than a little introspection to right your cart. Candance Reaves tried antidepressants, poetry and physical therapy before hitting on a yoga-meditation class that restored what grief and fatigue had robbed. “The class allows me to have that out-of- the-body experience when I can look at things differently and really focus,” she says. “When I feel stressed now, I sit down and do deep breathing for 10 minutes. At the end I’m focused about what I need to get done first. It gives me energy and peace.” Even three-minute meditations can re-center you, says Orloff. She practices them throughout her day—a way of turning off stress and turning on endorphins, the body’s feel-good neurochemicals. “Find a comfortable place,” she says. “Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and begin to quiet your thoughts. Picture yourself breathing in calm, breathing out stress, and find an image that relaxes you—mine is the night sky. This quickly turns off the stress response because you’re slowing down your system.”
4. Drop stressful “de-stressors”
One person’s de-stressor is another person’s toxin. Driving to a gym, circling for a parking space, pumping iron and returning to a ticketed car, for example, isn’t my idea of relaxing. Erin Munroe had a similar experience. “I was taking hot yoga at 5 a.m. to help me chill out. It was all type-A people and very competitive. The class made me crazy; I would get mad that someone could do a Tree pose better than me. Now I take hatha yoga with people in sweatpants and I’ve realized I don’t need to exercise 9,000 hours a week.”
5. De-stress your diet
Even if we can’t change the traffic or long work hours that shred our nervous systems, we can change habits that frazzle them. For instance, I love coffee. But adding stimulants to my body is like adding rocket fuel: I orbit all night. So, I limit myself to one cup, switch to black tea after that and sleep like the stress-free baby I’m not. That’s an approach Terry Courtney, M.P.H., L.Ac., dean of the School of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine at Bastyr University, advises for her frazzled clients. Caffeine stimulates the same stress hormones—cortisol and adrenaline—you’re trying to reduce. And sugar offers an energy rush, soon followed by fatigue as your blood sugar drops. “You’re left without resources for building energy on your own,” says Courtney. “Caffeine also interrupts sleep, so you wake up tired—wanting more caffeine and sugar.” But Courtney doesn’t recommend going cold turkey, knowing she’d give a coffee lover like me the shakes. “Just look at your patterns and see what’s reasonable,” she says.
6. Supplement your stress
Take a good multivitamin, one that includes a B vitamin complex with folate, says Donna Bryant Winston, R.N., an herbalist and nurse at Donegan Clinic in Bethlehem, Pa. “These vitamins help in the production of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, which relieve anxiety.” Vitamin B-rich foods include whole grains, nuts, dried fruits and eggs. Folate helps stabilize our mood and can be found in dark leafy green vegetables and beans. Turkey contains an amino acid called L-tryptophan, which also helps increase serotonin levels and calm us. Saunders also recommends magnesium. “It’s probably the best supplement for calming the nervous system overall,” she says. “It’s very alkalizing—and the more alkaline the system, the more resistant the body is to illness and stress. To alkalize the body, limit highly acidic foods (coffee, alcohol, meat and sugar) and load up on highly alkaline foods (vegetables and fruit).
7. Let the sunshine in
Sunshine stimulates the production of vitamin D in our bodies, essential for replenishing the adrenal glands, says Lobe. Go outside for 20 minutes a day without sunscreen or sunglasses; Lobe also recommends taking 4,000 to 8,000 IU of vitamin D a day.
“When I’m really stressed, exercise is a big outlet—and I have a better workout,” says Brooks, who spins, walks, kick-boxes or does yoga before work five days a week. “It helps me get my aggression out.” Saunders also exercises regularly, practicing yoga and taking daily hourlong walks. “In Chinese medicine, we say that physical movement helps to move the qi, or energy, through the system.” In fact, according to a 2010 University of California, San Francisco, study of stressed-out women, most of whom were caregivers, the women who exercised vigorously for an average of just 13 minutes a day had fewer signs of aging—the longer telomeres again—than their inactive counterparts.
9. Cultivate active rest
That’s very different from collapsing at the end of the day, says Lichtenstein. “That’s just exhaustion,” he says. Active rest is spending time relaxing in a way that rejuvenates you—hanging out with friends, listening to music, reading or meditating. “All of these are a form of meditation that gives focused attention to the moment.” In a 2009 study conducted at West Virginia University, 35 stressed-out people were taught mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing and meditation. At the end of three months, they had a 54 percent drop in psychological distress and a 46 percent drop in medical symptoms (high blood pressure, aches and pains among them). The control group had little reduction of stress and an increase in medical symptoms.
Use stress to your advantage
“There’s a difference between a positive growth response to stress and using stress as a defense,” says Saunders. “If it’s the kind of stress that promotes growth, I’m all for it.” For instance, Saunders sometimes finds long meditation retreats stressful. “But I know that inner work is promoting growth,” she says. That’s a different stress than forcing herself to do something just because she thinks she should. “I hear a lot of women say I should do this job or keep this marriage going,” Saunders adds. “We have this idea that it’s selfish to say no. But you have to learn to say no, to set boundaries so you have time to do what sustains you.” All of this stress dissection has been strangely calming. With a little attention from me—some slow breathing, a pinch of thankfulness, a no-weekend rule about e-mails— I’m finally realizing that stress doesn’t have to be my personal rumba 24/7. I may always have a higher idle than I’d like, but knowing that I can make some stress work for me injects a little pride in my two-step. It helps me relax. And yes, even stress less.