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Giving Stress More Respect
October 12, 2007
By Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times

"It’s probably just stress.” How many times have you uttered those words to yourself to dismiss a headache, pain or illness?

But stress is not “just” some benign complaint. Instead, it’s a powerful risk factor for disease, notes a recent commentary in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The article focuses on evidence showing that stress is linked to an increased risk for heart attacks, depression, cancer and the progression of H.I.V. and AIDS. Notably, an accompanying article in JAMA notes that workplace stress may be as bad for your heart as smoking and high cholesterol. And marital strife also poses a major risk to your heart health, the Archives of Internal Medicine reported this week.

One reason stress is such a problem is that it triggers bad habits like overeating, lack of sleep, smoking and drinking. “It’s hard to pull stress apart from other things, because stress triggers many of the standard risk factors like smoking and poor diet,’’ says Sheldon Cohen, psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University and lead author of the JAMA commentary. “But it may be really quite an important predictor of health.’’

Stress also has a more insidious effect, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol that can weaken the body’s immune defenses. In a series of studies at Carnegie Mellon, researchers asked volunteers about the stress in their lives and then injected them with a cold virus. Most of the people who had reported very little chronic stress didn’t get sick — their immune systems rallied against the virus. But volunteers who said they’d experienced chronic stress for a month or longer were at far higher risk of falling ill.

Now there’s a growing body of research that shows the healthiest agers are those who are adept at shedding stress. In one series of German studies, researchers have induced stress in volunteers by having them speak in public while trying to solve difficult math problems. The task is typically tough on everyone the first time they do it, and saliva samples from volunteers show high levels of cortisol. Eventually, most volunteers get used to the task and cortisol levels drop. But some of the subjects are unable to shake off their excess stress, and the studies show their cortisol levels stay elevated.

Exercise is an obvious way to shed stress, but for some people daily stress relief comes in simple steps like making time to play with your kids, watching a favorite television show or taking a hot bath. Since the worst kind of stress is chronic, the key is to focus on stress relief every day, and not just on weekends, say stress researchers. To learn more about stress and the toll it takes on your health, one of my favorite health books is Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers. The short answer is that zebras have a lot of stress because they have to flee from lions on a regular basis, but after the crisis they mostly just graze calmly. People, on the other hand, spend too much of their downtime worrying about the lions in their lives.
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