updated 4/12/2005 4:58:15 PM ET 2005-04-12T20:58:15

Americans spend billions of dollars each year coping with stress. From guzzling martinis or popping pills to paying burly masseurs to pummel us, much of our lives — and dollars — are devoted to unwinding, loosening up or just decompressing for a while.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

Of course, over time alleviating stress is about more than just finding a way to deal with a bad day. Considering the impact it has on our body, stress could be one of our biggest health problems, if not the biggest. Research shows that chronic stress contributes to a slew of medical conditions, including high blood pressure, heart attacks, insomnia and gastrointestinal problems, as well as a host of anxiety disorders and emotional "issues."

The reason is that a stressful situation, such as a heated argument, an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission or meeting your teenage daughter's new tattooed boyfriend, triggers the body to release over seventeen different hormones — nature's way of making us alert and ready for action. The pulse quickens, blood pressure rises, blood vessels constrict and digestion even stops. Our fight-or-flight instinct may have been helpful in the days of cavemen, when it was not uncommon to encounter, say, a saber-toothed tiger; but in a traffic jam, our impulse to flee is hardly helpful. Most stressful situations these days require restraint, as opposed to physical action.

Still, our bodies are negatively affected by our physical response to stress. The hormones that are released during a stressful situation take about 30 minutes to 60 minutes to clear from your system, so if you become stressed again within that time, your body is on alert continuously. "This constant activation of stress chemicals is like pouring Drano into your system," says Dr. Frederic Luskin, a Stanford psychologist and author of the recently published book, Stress Free For Good. "It's going to wear away the part of you that is weakest."

Dangers of stress
A study led by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 2002 found that men who were classified as having the highest level of anger in response to stress were more than three times likely to develop premature heart disease when compared to men who reported lower anger responses, and they were over six times more likely to have a heart attack by age 55. One possible explanation for these dramatic findings is high blood pressure, a condition that commonly develops in highly stressed individuals. Studies show that people with uncontrolled high blood pressure are three times more likely to get coronary artery disease and seven times more likely to have a stroke.

Stress is not only costly to our well-being, but also to the bottom line. According to the American Institute of Stress, a Yonkers, N.Y.-based nonprofit clearinghouse for stress related research, stress costs U.S. industry approximately $300 billion a year in absenteeism, employee turnover and health costs.

Similarly, the Health Enhancement Research Organization, a nonprofit coalition of employers and health care providers based in Birmingham, Ala., found that medical claims filed by employees who were deemed highly stressed cost nearly 50 person more than less stressed employees.

How some people deal
Corporate stress management seminars and five-minute chair massages aside, we all have ways of dealing with our day-to-day pressures. Take your co-workers: There are those who light up a cigarette on their way out the door and run off to meet friends for drinks, while others head straight to their yoga class. Watching television is probably one of the most popular ways to de-stress (so long as it's not the news). Some swear by herbal supplements such as St. John's wort, which is purported to calm rattled nerves by boosting serotonin levels. Booze and tobacco are widely used as stress relievers, even if they do not exactly qualify as "healthy."

Of course, one of the most stressful things we do is de-stressing the wrong way. Martinis may not be to everyone's taste nor, for that matter, is marathon running. What matters is finding the technique that works best for you. Our A to Z of de-stressing is not a self-help guide, but rather an overview of the ways in which people may relieve stress.

© 2012


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments