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How Stress Shortens Your Life (And What To Do About It)

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If you’ve ever been curious about how your body “feels” when challenged by relentless stress, consider this experiment. Obviously, I don’t recommend you try it. Like the car ads on TV say, “Do not attempt this. A professional is driving a closed course.” I’m asking you to think about it as a good example of what your body experiences during nonstop stress.

One day, instead of eating anything for breakfast, order Starbuck’s largest latte with three extra espresso shots. Have another as your midmorning snack and another for lunch, midafternoon snack, dinner, and nightcap. Limit your food intake to a bagful of Mrs. Field’s cookies. Feel your jaw clenching? Mind racing? Hands trembling?

This is your body under the yoke of chronic stress. The caffeine acts pretty much like your body’s stress hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine.

A different matter altogether is your body’s response to a single episode of stress, like being attacked by a mugger. You and your fellow mammals (such as a deer that hears a hunter) are designed to go into temporary overdrive when you’re in danger. Your brain, perceiving trouble, sends an instant message to your adrenal glands (two walnut-sized glands perched atop your kidneys) to release adrenalin, norepinephrine, and cortisol. You’ll feel the caffeine-like effect of the adrenalin and norepinephrine as your muscles tense and your heart races. The cortisol is more subtle, but it changes the way your body uses sugar and stores fat (think belly fat buildup).

This stress response–including your body’s reaction to these hormones–is designed for single use only. Once you’ve escaped the mugger you’re supposed to have some down time so the entire system can recover.

Our bodies are simply not designed to deal with one stressor after another, or one big stressor that doesn’t go away, what doctors and psychologists call chronic stress. Although you may cringe at the thought of the Starbuck’s experiment, until you learn how to deal with the useless worry of chronic stress by leaving your miserable job, walking out on a toxic relationship, or mastering the art of saying “no,” you’re facing the very real health risks of stress.

You experience stress in any situation where you’ve relinquished control of your life. Any time someone or something controls your life–and you don’t–you’ll experience stress. We accept some sources of stress (a new baby keeping you awake at night), while others (the job from hell) we must learn to get out of our lives.

Evolution hasn’t taught us much when it comes to dealing with stress. It would have been nice if the stress response included heightened self-awareness or opened some unused philosophical circuits in our brain. Instead, we eat too much, skip meals, drink, or smoke. We get angry, irritable, or weepy. We don’t sleep and then get tired–really, seriously tired.

All these stress-associated behaviors only serve to make us more stressed, and yes, things do tend to spin out of control. Up goes the blood pressure and risk for heart attack and stroke. Up goes your vulnerability to infection and probably even cancer. Down goes immunity. With chronic stress, we suffer a whole smorgasbord of conditions that aren’t really illnesses, though they’re often worse than actual illness and they definitely take their toll on our joie de vivre: depression, anxiety, muscle aches and pains, headaches, jaw grinding, irritable bowel syndrome, and migraines.

Can this be stopped? Yes, definitely. But that’s for next week.

Hint: you’ll need a major attitude shift and three useful herbs.

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