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How to handle stress

1st December 2008

The global economic crisis has sparked soaring stress levels among Americans, a recent survey shows.

Sad

The survey of 2,500 people from across the US was released in October by the American Psychological Association.

It showed significantly elevated stress levels, particularly in the past six months.

Money was a cause of stress for 81% of respondents, compared with 59% in 2006, while concerns over housing had risen to 62% from 56% two years ago.

Between April and October, worries about work jumped from 62% to 67%; concerns over housing costs rose from 56% to 62%; and job stability woes increased from 48% to 56%.

Psychological stress has a dampening effect on the immune system and increases the body's inflammatory responses, which can contribute to stroke, arthritis, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

It can also 'switch on' genes that trigger disease, accelerate ageing and lead to depression.

Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a stress specialist at Ohio State University said immune responses to an influenza vaccine had been markedly weaker in people who cared long-term for a spouse with dementia, in a study she carried out with colleague.

Skin wounds on the caregivers also took 24% longer to heal than those of a control group.

Humans have evolved to treat stress as a physical threat, using the fight, flight or freeze responses. However, stress hormones accumulate when stress does not translate into those physical activities, which is why exercise is crucial in minimising stress.

Regular exercise leads to lower baseline heart rates, lower blood pressure and lower stress hormone levels when at rest. This makes occasional surges of stress easier to handle.

Sleep deprivation, even for just one night, raises inflammatory cytokines, chemical messengers between immune cells.

According to Michael Irwin, director of the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, a wide spectrum of conditions, including cardiovascular disease, arthritis, diabetes, certain cancers, obesity and functional decline, are linked to an increase in inflammatory cytokines.

Social isolation and lack of emotional support boosts stress, and with it the risk of mortality, illness and coronary disease.

In socially isolated people, genes that turn on inflammation were more likely to be on, and those that suppressed inflammation were more likely to be turned off.

Deliberate relaxation brings the parasympathetic arm of the nervous system into play, relaxing the body, and can be triggered by calming activities like meditation, deep breathing or enjoying a sunset.

Meditation, mindfulness and focus on a specific task also trains the brain to focus, improving its attention span.

Concentrating on a task and elimination of worries is also a powerful defence against stress. People who meditate regularly have lower baselines of stress, and lower blood pressure and heart rates when they are meditating.

Breathing deeply, and being in a loving relationship are also powerful antidotes.

 

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