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Stressed Out?

Tips for keeping stress in check

Feeling stressed? If so, you can blame evolution — at least in part.

"In the old days, humans used to live with these very immediate threats," says Patricia Normand, MD, a psychiatrist at Rush. "If a saber-toothed tiger was coming at you, you needed to react automatically to get away in time. So our bodies developed a chemical response to help us do that."

Today, while most of our stressors aren't quite so life-threatening, they continue to catalyze this millennia-old fight-or-flight response: The body produces adrenaline, spurring the heart to pump faster and increasing blood flow to the arms and legs. At the same time, functions such as digestion, reproduction and immune response slow or shut down to avoid interference and conserve energy.

These changes still have a purpose. They help you react quickly if, say, someone cuts you off on the highway.

Most of the time, though, we can't or don’t need to react so instantaneously to our stressors (think: getting stuck in a traffic jam or a difficult situation at the office), which means that many of our stress responses are exaggerated or even needless.

In fact, they can be worse than needless: In addition to feeling unpleasant, excess stress can lead to serious medical conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

Getting a handle on stress

The good news is that we can learn to control some of the reflexes we’ve evolved to have — and to avoid the situations that cause them.

"Many people don't realize the extent to which they can manage and even prevent stress," Normand says.

Normand — who runs a mindfulness-based stress reduction class at the Rush University Prevention Center to help people do just that — offers the following advice for getting a handle on stress:

  • Breathe. "Your reaction to an event can cause you just as much stress as the event itself," Normand says. "By focusing on your breathing for a few seconds, really devoting your attention to each breath rather than what's going on around you, you can give yourself a bit of distance from your immediate reaction." In other words, by briefly shifting your attention away from the stressor, focused breathing helps prevent you from reacting too hastily, giving you time to think about how you want to respond.
  • Categorize. Consider the parts of your life that cause you stress and decide whether they are important enough to worry about. "Think about whether what's stressing you out is going to matter tomorrow, or next year," Normand advises. In most cases, if it won't continue to matter, it's not worth your stress. "Have different baskets." she adds."Things that are life-threatening or extremely important, that's one basket. These are things you need to deal with immediately so it's okay to give them your full attention and focus right then." Another "basket" might comprise things that don't matter at all: spilling coffee on your pants, for example. A third could include everything in the middle: things you might have to deal with, but that aren't necessarily worth stressing about.
  • Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep (seven to eight hours a day for most adults), exercise and seek out activities you enjoy. In addition, it's important not to judge yourself too harshly. "Remember to be as kind to yourself as you would be to other people," Normand says. "We can be very judgmental of ourselves, much more than we would be to other people." Because overly harsh criticism can cause stress whether it comes from oneself or others, thinking more positively about yourself can be an effective preventive measure.
  • Learn to say no. A good way to reduce stress, Normand says, is saying no to things you don't need to do. "A lot of stress comes from the fact that we're always cramming things in," she says. "So instead of multitasking, it can be really helpful to focus on single-tasking: focusing on what you're doing in the moment."

Stress isn't always bad — it can motivate you to meet deadlines or respond to challenges. But all too often stress causes physical or emotional fallout — from upset stomachs to sleepless nights. 

Heading to an intense job interview or giving an important presentation is enough to kick anyone's nerves into high gear. But when anxiety festers and becomes something dark and all-consuming, there's a problem.

When work is stressful to you, chances are good it stays on your mind, perhaps worming its way into your sleep. The end result: you never truly get away from work. Getting a handle on your work-related stress can help you both physically and mentally.