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Just like germs, a certain amount of stress is good for you, and virtually a necessity to maintain balanced mental, physical and emotional health. However, being able to differentiate between “good” and “bad” stress is essential. Ultimately, what makes stress bad is how long a person is exposed to it.

THE GOOD AND BAD

Short bursts of stress, such as the proverbial caveman fleeing from the saber-toothed tiger, cause the hypothalamus to trigger a release of adrenalin which energizes the body, and focuses the mind and senses to accomplish the task at hand – like not getting eaten. This good stress is called acute stress.

On the other hand, the stressors most of us are more familiar with last much longer and are far less exciting, such as traffic, work deadlines and financial obligations. The stress created by such factors is known as chronic stress, and several health problems have been linked to it.

Studies have found that prolonged exposure to chronic stress can cause acne, headaches, depression, eating disorders, gastrointestinal problems, interrupted sleep patterns, changes in interest toward intimacy, graying hair and more. Beyond these issues, significant research also has gone into how stress weakens the immune system, and contributes to an increase in the occurrence of communicable diseases.

WEAKENED IMMUNITY

Research overseen by Carnegie Mellon University’s Dr. Sheldon Cohen, and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed a strong connection between test subjects’ high levels of cortisol – the hormone, which among many things, regulates antibody production and activity, as well as causes the body to store fat – and severely reduced immune response.

Cohen concluded his subjects’ chronic stress caused their bodies to release large doses of cortisol with high frequency. This caused the antibodies that fight off disease, infection and inflammation to become desensitized and resist regulation. Thus, the antibodies don’t rush into action when a foreign body, such as a virus, invades and starts to cause an infection.

As a result, researchers in both Cohen’s and similar studies were able to practically “predict” who would get a cold when exposed to a virus, based strictly on their recent stress levels.

WAYS TO FIGHT STRESS

1. Know when you’re too stressed: Take action to reduce it. Sometimes easier said than done, taking action against stress can be difficult, but just like taking the first step to recovering from addiction, admitting that you have a problem is key. Some people feel that admitting they are overstressed is a sign of weakness, but not admitting it is only prolonging the inevitable: a crash, abject failure, or illness.

Telling colleagues, family members, or others involved in your immediate circle that you’re overwhelmed is sometimes all that’s needed to prompt them to readjust their expectations of you. After all, if you’ve been accomplishing everything given to you to date, even if it is detrimental of your health, they may not even be aware of your stress.

2. Get organized: One of the biggest causes of stress is a lack of organization. It causes people to be late, forgetful, lost, or just feel “behind all the time.” By being organized, particularly with regard to prioritizing tasks in order of importance, you will likely discover you’re more efficient, more on-time, and less stressed overall.

Simply spending a few minutes outlining your day and assigning priority to each task can save hours every week. Having everything in writing is reassuring and a good way to keep from forgetting things. Plus, striking things off of your to-do list is a very gratifying experience and reduces stress by releasing hormones that only occur during periods of pleasure.

Don’t underestimate the value of preparing for things and mapping out routes to unfamiliar destinations, since both of these tasks can save valuable time and prevent frustration.

3. Stay in control: This tip is not only for work but for staying in control emotionally, as well. Not lashing out when you’re stressed protects relationships and helps you avoid potentially embarrassing moments that can cause even more stress later on. For those who withdraw when stressed, resisting this tendency and instead communicating your stress to others can often be all that is needed to convince somebody to pitch in and help until you can handle things on your own again.

4. Be realistic: Superheroes only exist in comic books and movies, so don’t expect more of yourself than any one human can accomplish. Likewise, avoid putting more on subordinates or family members than they can realistically do, as well. Frequently failing or coming up short of expectations is a huge stressor, so setting realistic long- and short-term goals and reasonable expectations goes a long way toward mitigating stress.

5. Build downtime into your schedule: As anyone who’s extremely busy can attest, taking a break when you know you should or could be getting things done can cause feelings of guilt. However, we all need a break occasionally to function at our best. For this reason, scheduling downtime into your day, week, month and year is essential. Then, when the planned break time comes around, you can chill out and enjoy it stress and guilt-free.

Stress is a real and constant part of life but learning to control it, as opposed to letting it control you, will leave you less susceptible to disease, and healthier and happier overall.