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posted: 2/4/2013 5:00 AM

Stress takes toll on physical health

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By David Templeton
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Alarms sound and firefighters jump into fire trucks in a flash. Soldiers struggle to survive war. A mother grows exhausted caring for her children.

People live wholly different lives, but there's one thing they share: Life is full of stress.

Expected and unexpected daily challenges on the job, at home or out and about expose people to a constant barrage of forces that threaten their normal equilibrium.

What people don't fully realize is the toll that stress takes on our physical health.

Uncontrolled stress causes cardiovascular disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, autoimmune disorders, cognitive and memory problems, and mental disorders including depression -- a biological rather than mental disorder caused by such a continuous cascade of stress hormones that the person can be disabled by it. In addition, an inability to cope with life's pressures can lead to behaviors -- such as smoking, overeating and alcohol abuse -- that compound the negative health effects.

Much as the antelope sprinting from a charging lion, people experience a fight-or-flight response when confronted with a threat or confrontation, even if it poses no threat to their lives. Early ancestors responded efficiently to stress by running faster or fighting harder to survive the dangers of the day. Those who didn't got eaten.

"We are the progeny of those who could escape danger," said Bruce S. Rabin, the noted University of Pittsburgh stress expert who successfully developed a stress management program more than 10 years ago.

Now we find ourselves unable to turn off the stress response.

However, Rabin points out that people actually can do this. His program promotes tested, efficient and free methods to control stress, based on the word and acronym RELAX -- Reflection, Expectations, Laughter, Acquaintances and exercise. Managing stress requires mindfulness, optimism, humor, friends and family, and exercise.

Stress is a normal part of life that occurs when the brain perceives a troubling situation that it cannot cope with. It becomes a problem when a person cannot turn off the brain's reaction to stress.

Stress signals from the cerebral cortex convince the body and rest of the brain that controls routine body functions to react as though a life-or-death situation were occurring.

In response, the brain pours out hormones -- adrenaline, epinephrine, serotonin and glucocorticoids -- in just seconds and halts body functions not essential to survival, causing the intestines to quit digesting food and the immune system to not fight infections. The immune system activates an inflammatory response that would protect against injury from the flight or fight. The heart beats faster to pump blood and added glucose to maximize the body's performance in a crisis.

Fifteen to 20 minutes after the stressful experience, the stress hormone, cortisol, begins to take effect to return the body to normal. After the chase, the antelope resumes grazing. With chronic stress, levels of cortisol decline in some people, making it difficult for the body to recover.

While everyone experiences stress, not everyone manages it well. The reasons vary, including genetics and the degree of exposure to stressful situations beginning in the womb.

Controlling stress isn't a matter of medicating the body but managing the mind, Rabin says.

Basic methods to manage stress include deep breathing, meditation, guided imagery, expressive writing, relaxation techniques, humor, exercise, friendships and human interaction, religion and spirituality and a healthy lifestyle. And research is showing that people can turn hellish situations into more heavenly ones by taking control of the mind's wayward worries and reducing the body's intractable tensions.

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