When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Then use lemonade to wash down Xanax. Funny stuff on a bumper sticker, but as a commentary on America's epidemic of stress and anxiety? A little too close for comfort. Fact is, stress is a serious problem for us right now. In a survey of 1,568 adults recently commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA), 75 percent of respondents said they had experienced moderate to high levels of stress throughout the previous year. Women bore the brunt of it, with 27 percent reporting severe stress compared with 19 percent of men. Women also were far more likely to develop stress-induced symptoms such as lethargy, sadness, irritability, and appetite changes that led to overeating. Naturally, there's a bumper sticker for that, too: "Stressed" spelled backwards is "desserts."
Clearly we know how stress makes us feel emotionally--stressed!--but it also manifests physically. The process begins when the brain perceives a threat and responds by activating the body's fight-or-flight defenses. This involves the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prime the body for action by accelerating heart rate, tensing major muscle groups, and even thickening blood--a safety measure that speeds clotting if you're gravely wounded, says journalist Thea Singer, author of Stress Less (Hudson Street Press, 2010). That's handy if your house is on fire, but if stress never lets up and your system gets stuck in code red, health can take a hit. "We've found that over time, cortisol can wear down the protective ends of DNA," says Elissa Epel, Ph.D., a psychiatry researcher at the University of California in San Francisco. "This ages the immune system, heightening a person's vulnerability to cardiovascular disease and a host of other illnesses."
It's not always possible to make life less hectic (hey, those weeknight dinners aren't going to cook themselves), but not to worry: Experts say the real trick to achieving greater calm and better health is to change how you respond to stress. Read on for three simple strategies, and get ready to breathe a sigh of relief.
Continued on page 2: Skill #1: Figure out what's making you crazy