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Stress Less for a Healthier Life

Angie Tesla wakes up at 5:30 every morning just to get a few minutes of peace and quiet in her day. By 6 a.m. she's making breakfast, packing lunches and getting her three youngsters on the bus to school. Then it's off to work, where she puts in about 10 hours a day teaching before coming home, making dinner, helping the kids with their homework.

A single mom who lost her husband to cancer, Angie worries every day about the safety of her 19-year-old son, who is serving in the military, and how she'll be able to afford to send her young ones to college.

"Every day is a challenge," Angie laments. "Some days I feel like my head is going to explode."

But it's those few minutes of peace in the morning that keep Angie calm throughout her very stressful days.

"It's my 'me' time," she says. "Even if I'm exhausted, I'll still get up and go for a walk or just sit in bed and breathe for a few minutes."

Angie's "me" time may make all the difference for her health.

We all feel a certain amount of stress in our fast-paced society. Some kinds of stress, like the stress that comes from learning something new, can be good for you, but dealing with high levels of stress day after day can do a number on your body.

"Stress increases the levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline in your body, which can have adverse effects on your heart and other organs," says Dr. Eli Gelfand, a cardiologist at the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Chronic stress can lead to an increase in inflammation, high blood pressure, an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, gastrointestinal disorders, depression, headaches, skin rashes, poor wound healing and even memory loss.

"We commonly see young and middle-aged people who, among other things, feel that they might be suffering from the early onset of Alzheimer's disease, but more often than not their lack of concentration or memory loss is a result of stress and poor sleep hygiene," notes Dr. Gelfand.

Inadvertently, how we cope with stress can often put even more stress on our bodies. Behaviors like drinking alcohol, smoking, and eating might make you feel better in the short term, but they may also be doing more damage to your system and potentially triggering more stress.

"That's what I call a perfect storm," says Dr. Carolyn Bernstein, Clinical Director of the Comprehensive Headache Center at BIDMC. "If wine triggers headaches for you and then you drink a glass of wine to relax when you're stressed, now you've got two stress triggers working against you."

The good news is decreasing the amount of stress in your life will help lower the damage chronic stress is doing to your body. A few small changes can have a big effect.

Angie Tesla's "me" time is a perfect example - take a few minutes each day to be calm and quiet, shut the lights off, close your eyes and just breathe. Or go for a brisk walk and release some of your body's "feel-good" endorphins.

"In my book, there's nothing as good as exercise," recommends Dr. Bernstein. "Find a way to be physically active - run, take a walk, go to a yoga class or just do a few yoga poses every day at home."

Click here for more simple tips to relieve stress

The most important thing you can do to combat stress is to be aware of what triggers stress for you. Is your job causing stress? Is it a family member? Financial troubles? Being aware of what's stressing you out is the first step to finding more peace and health in your day-to-day life.

"It's important to identify and perhaps even write down some major stressors in your life and think about which stressors you can control and which you can't," says Dr. Gelfand. "If you're worried about your finances, take charge and scale back on your spending. But if you're worried about the Greek debt crisis, accept the fact that there are some things in life you probably can't control on your own."

But don't ignore stress or accept high levels of stress as your new normal.

"People have to be good about advocating for themselves," suggests Dr. Bernstein. "If you're in a stressful situation at work, talk to your boss. If you're arguing with your teenager, take a break and go for a 10-minute walk. Be attentive to yourself."

Angie Tesla agrees.

"I know the pace of my life is not going to change any time soon," she says. "But by taking time to take care of myself, I'm much happier taking care of everything else."

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted September 2011

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General Medicine and Primary Care
Department of Medicine
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Carl J. Shapiro Clinical Center
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215