I am older than stress. This realization struck the other day asI was taking stock of the modern-day conveniences invented since my 1954 birth.

Color TV, let alone plasma, LCD, flat screens, HD and now even 3D. The VCR and video camera. The remote control. Touch-tone telephones, cordless phones, and cellular phones. Cassette tape from 8-track to micro and now SD cards. Compact discs. The personal computer, laptop, notebook and tablet computer, too. The microwave, breadmaker, garage-door opener, and even the Nautilus machine.

Those of us old enough to remember the milk man making deliveries and the doctor arriving for a house call also ushered in the dawning of a modern-day phenomenon: STRESS.

Of all risk factors for chronic health problems, stress is one of the most difficult to address, perhaps because the definition of excessive stress varies widely from person to person, and because its effects are so pervasive. Another problem with stress is that many people take persistent stress for granted; it becomes a way of life. A third difficulty lies in the fact that what relieves stress for some people does not work as well for others.

Fortunately, this last observation has one important exception -- an appropriate program of physical activity appears to help relieve stress for almost everyone.


Good Stress, Bad Stress

The harm quotient of stress depends on what you consider stressful. Our bodies are accustomed to and stimulated by a certain amount of arousal. Yes, arousal . . . sorry there isn't a better word.

Getting a little nervous before a presentation, exam, workout, or other performance can provide an adrenaline pump. Stress associated with a sense of control and positive outcomes is less harmful than stress that feels negative and out of control. The nature of our emotional response to stress has a strong effect on how stress affects our health. Feelings of anger, fear, alienation, isolation, helplessness and hopelessness are associated with an increased risk of stress-related disorders.

But even pleasant periods of arousal must be balanced by relaxation. Too much of a good thing is still too much. Each person must figure out, usually by trial and error, the best balance of arousal and relaxation for his or her situation. The impact of stress on health is mediated by a number of genetic, environmental and personality variables; each person is unique, and each person's stress response is unique. Some people have a great deal of stress tolerance and seem to thrive on high levels of arousal, while others feel overwhelmed and exhausted by relatively low levels of stimulation. Most people can tell when they are experiencing too much stress. Usually some physical, psychological or behavioral symptom serves as a stress barometer to let them know they're on overload. My ears turn red. Others get headaches, feel depressed, or drink alcohol.

Too many negative consequences should motivate you to make some appropriate life-style change or changes.


Health Hazard

Under stress, the musculoskeletal system braces for fight or flight. Chronic stress can create painful muscle tension or worsen existing musculoskeletal problems. Areas most vulnerable to such problems include muscles of the jaw, head, neck, shoulders and back. Knots and tightness occur.

Chronic stress decreases the strength of the immune response, and people are more likely to succumb to viral and bacterial infections. Stress may exacerbate allergies and autoimmune disorders. Skin problems can also worsen during periods of stress.

Severe and prolonged stress can be a disaster, contributing to hypertension and leading to hemoconcentration and faster clotting rates hallmarks of cardiovascular disease.

You should be thrilled to death you're working out. According to a recent report:

"Stress hormones damage the arterial lining, and make unhealthy arteries more prone to spasms which occlude blood flow. Stress may lead to maladaptive changes in sleep, eating and exercise habits, and increased use of harmful substances such as caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, all of which may contribute to cardiovascular disease. Stress may interact with personality variables such as hostility, feelings of isolation, low self-esteem and emotions such as anger and depression, to increase artery disease.

"When stressed, a person may experience a dry mouth, a lump in their throat, butterflies in their stomach or a negative gut response. All of these symptoms reflect the effect of stress on the digestive system. While most digestive problems are not caused solely by stress, it exacerbates these disorders. Examples are gum disease, ulcers, nervous stomach and nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic constipation, chronic diarrhea and some types of inflammatory bowel disease."

Psychological disorders can also result, including depression, anxiety, phobias and addictions. Eating disorders, irritability, insomnia and nervous habits such as nail-biting can also be stress-induced.

Experts say that one of the simplest and most immediate approaches to stress reduction is to make time, even small amounts, for exercise and recreation. Perhaps more changes are needed, but this is a good first step. It is easy to lose sight of what's important when under stress. Habits essential to long-term health such as effective exercise and diligent eating often get put on hold as we put out the fires that can't wait until tomorrow. A few weeks in crisis mode won't kill us, but we have to return to a more healthful life at some point.

What's really stressful is when the remote control doesn't work, the PC needs repair, the video camera gets stolen, and the dough doesn't rise in the breadmaker.

Hey, maybe there's a connection?

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