Raleigh, North Carolina businessman Buddy Howard used to feel his heart race and dread set in every time he thought about driving up profits at his equity research firm or was faced with an unwieldy project that seemed impossible to complete. Then his 11-year-old daughter developed anorexia--and he suddenly learned the difference between stress and stress.
Stress has certainly earned its bad reputation, given the wreckage it causes: headaches, stomach pain, high blood pressure, insomnia, and mind freeze reminiscent of a crashing laptop. But it also has an unheralded upside. In normal doses, adrenaline and other "fight or flight" hormones improve performance and seem to even protect health. They increase alertness and motivate you to get things done by quickening your heartbeat, improving blood flow to the brain, and enhancing vision and hearing. And in small amounts, studies suggest, they boost the immune system and may protect against age-related memory loss by keeping brain cells active.
Extremely agitated:Getting the calibration just right can be tough, but it's achievable: As Howard discovered, it's often a matter of changing one's perception of a challenge.
The problem with overwhelming stress? In the short term, the rush of stress hormones can make people less productive, even mentally paralyzed. Think writer's block. When the overload becomes chronic, heart disease, depression, and an impaired immune system can result. An estimated 50 to 80 percent of people who develop depression have faced a major stressful life event, like a divorce or job firing, during the preceding three to six months and most likely have produced an excessive amount of the stress hormone cortisol.
The ultimate goal is to hit a stress response appropriate for a given situation: You want to be in low gear when you're, say, watching TV, medium when you're doing car pool, and high--but not overdrive--when you're under a deadline crunch.
Sometimes the trick "is to fool your brain into thinking that you have some degree of control." Researchers have shown that people produce more healthful levels of stress hormones when they're told they have control over a stressor, whether or not they actually act--they have the ability to press a button to stop a loud, irritating noise, say, even if they don't stop the noise. It's all about being proactive rather than placing blame--as much as we'd like to put it on our parents--or sitting back and feeling helpless.
You might find a way, for example, to limit your exposure to a stressor. Duke University stress researcher Redford Williams says he reduced his tension over having to deal with endless E-mail messages by simply deciding to stop constantly checking his PDA after hours. (Bonus: Ignoring the pesky E-mail eased a bit of stress in his marriage, too, he says, since he could tell from his wife's body language that "it wasn't good for our relationship.")
Understressed While the health hazards of too much stress have been well established, too little isn't good for you either, according to Monika Fleshner, an associate professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado-Boulder who's conducted numerous studies on the stress response.
It could be that if the stress system isn't activated often enough, she theorizes, it produces higher levels of stress hormones when it does get turned on. Like a muscle, it may need to be used regularly in order to stay in peak working condition. This could explain why some people fall apart when hit by a serious crisis while others rise to the occasion. If your body isn't used to having challenges, Fleshner speculates, "perhaps when the stress response finally does get turned on, it's hard to turn off."
Try the cure all Beyond using your mental processes to manage your response to stress, there's that terrific physiological tool: exercise. Regular physical activity is the single best thing you can do to gain energy if you're understressed and to relax if you're frazzled, say experts. A 2007 study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that people who exercise at least two or three times a week have smaller increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and inflammatory chemicals when given stressful word-naming tasks than those who never exercise.