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updated 5/11/2011 9:17:22 AM ET 2011-05-11T13:17:22

When you think about it, stress is a mysterious thing: You can't see it or touch it, but you definitely know it's there. And its enigmatic nature just might be preventing us from fully realizing the damage stress can do to our minds, bodies, and spirits.

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According to the American Psychological Association, more than half of all women say they're "highly stressed," an increase of 25 percent from just four years ago. But very few do anything to chill out. In fact, many seem to be saying "bring it on!" because somewhere along the line being stretched to the limit turned into a badge of honor.

That's how it was for Meredith Bodgas, 28, of Forest Hills, New York. Before switching to a lower-key Web job, Bodgas worked until 9 p.m. most nights. "I figured anyone who left before 7 p.m. simply wasn't as valuable," she says. She subscribed to the same misguided belief adopted by so many modern women: Stress is synonymous with success—and if you're not totally fried, you may not be doing enough. "I loved it when people would ask me 'How do you do it?' " admits Bodgas, "even though I suspect what some of them really meant was 'Why do you do it?' "

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Stress appeal
Turns out, high anxiety may be, well, an actual high.

"Some people think they need to be stressed all the time in order to really feel alive," says Patt Lind-Kyle, author of Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain: Applying the Exciting New Science of Brain Synchrony for Creativity, Peace, and Presence. They become hooked on the rush they get from stress, which stimulates hormones such as adrenaline, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), and especially cortisol. The tension can become addictive—and as with most addictions, it can usher in an unhealthy craving.

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The ready willingness to put out a welcome mat for stress also stems from myriad social and cultural pressures. While you'd think the feminist movement would have moved women way past this by now, "many still feel driven to prove they can be just as successful as their male counterparts," says stress researcher KaMala Thomas, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Pitzer College in California.

"In fact, studies show that women expect to juggle multiple roles from an early age. The result is that they end up thriving on stress and feeling guilty if they're not multitasking. They get used to the adrenaline rush and eventually interpret stress as a drive to be productive rather than a potential source of long-term health problems."

Compounding this is the possibility that women embrace stress because, somewhere along the way, they came to believe that the more frazzled they are, the better person they are. "Many young women think if they're not working every second of every day, they're lazy," says Steve Orma, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in San Francisco.

"They are ashamed of taking breaks and feel they're not a 'good' enough person if they aren't pushing themselves to the absolute limit. It has become a moral issue."

Plus, a lot of women are willing to forgo sleep and sanity for an implied payoff. In Bodgas's case, she figured the more hours she clocked—and the higher her stress meter continued to soar—the greater her reward would be. "I felt as if I were one of those pledging frat guys who tells himself that the fraternity must be amazing if he has to go through so much horrible stuff to get in," she says.

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No rest for the weary
Sometimes stress does have a higher purpose. For example, cortisol surges during critical times of acute angst—say, when an important work file goes missing—because it kicks your brain and butt into gear (Oh, you left it in Julia's office!). The problem begins when stress becomes a steady state of being. "After your cortisol rises, it's supposed to come right back down and not stay elevated," says Pamela W. Smith, M.D., author of What You Must Know About Women's Hormones. "When you're stressed for a long time, your body's stores of cortisol become too low and you don't have enough for your body to run at its optimal level." What's more, once cortisol stays elevated for longer than 24 hours, certain nutrients (such as B vitamins) get depleted, and cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels can skyrocket. Coursing cortisol can also trigger free radicals that could eventually damage neurons, affecting your short-and long-term memory and your ability to think clearly.

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Today, two-thirds of all office visits to primary-care physicians are related to stress. "Elevated stress can suppress the immune system, increase appetite, impact sex drive, affect fertility, and on and on," explains Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D., a biochemical nutritionist in Salt Lake City and author of The Cortisol Connection: Why Stress Makes You Fat and Ruins Your Health—and What You Can Do About It.

"It can also lead to behavioral changes such as excessive drinking, smoking, and bingeing on 'comfort' food, as well as lack of motivation."

And it turns out that all that ill-advised, frenzied one-upmanship—especially in the workplace—might be futile: The number one reason employees go on disability leave? You guessed it: Stress.

Getting an attitude adjustment
To step off the stress hamster wheel, you need to start making a conscious effort to catch yourself in the act of gloating, "I'm so stressed out." Similarly, you may think that responding to a friend's stress bravado with a play-by-play of your own overwhelming schedule is akin to being supportive. It's not. Stop being an enabler and lose the one-upping in favor of a softer, healthier approach, says Orma. Try saying something like, "Wow, it sounds like you have a tough week ahead. What will you do to take care of yourself?" Says Orma: "Gently encouraging a harried pal to take some downtime will be more helpful to both of you than swapping stress stories."

Next, get real about your overflowing agenda and try to edit out unnecessary and time-consuming activities (good-bye, IM). Taking small steps toward whittling your to-do list can put you back in control of your life—a position that delivers just as much euphoria as a stress high.

Outsmart stress traps
According to the American Psychological Association, 70 percent of women make a beeline for fast-acting, unhealthy stress solutions. Next time, sub in one of these much better anxiety busters.

Tempted to: Dig into a bag of chips?
Try this instead: Grab a handful of almonds.
The omega-3s in nuts may help keep stress hormones such as cortisol in check, says Bernadette Latson, R.D., a nutritionist in Dallas. Other key angst-nulling noshes: oatmeal (it boosts the calming brain chemical serotonin) and oranges (the vitamin C counters stress hormones).

Tempted to: Swig an energy drink?
Try this instead: Take a nap.
You can't beat stress without shut-eye. A 20-minute siesta is enough to trigger the hormones needed to balance excess cortisol.

Tempted to: Bitch out a coworker?
Try this instead: Pop a multi.
That irritation and impatience may be the result of depleted stores of calcium, copper, and zinc that come with stress. Down a multivitamin to raise those levels and mellow out, says Pamela W. Smith, M.D.

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Tempted to: Curl up on the sofa?
Try this instead: Go out with a friend.
A study in Behavioral Neuroscience found that simply being around other people may quash stress.

Tempted to: Reach for the remote?
Try this instead: Spend 15 minutes in silence.
This helps because "the brain doesn't have to filter out stressful sounds," says acupuncturist Kristen Burris.

© 2012 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved.

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