Feeling Stressed? Relax. No, Seriously—It Could Kill You

We all know that stress isn’t good for us. But when we think (and talk) about stress, we usually mean big things—an ugly divorce, long stretches of unemployment, caring for a sick loved one for an extended period of time, and so on.

Stress contributes to anxiety and depression and can increase the risk of having a heart attack and keep your immune system from doing its job. But researchers are finding out that the damage caused by stress is less about the stress itself and more about how we react to it—even if it’s just the daily bumps in the road we all deal with: pending deadlines, getting cut off in traffic, annoying chores, or fights with your boss or your spouse.

Back in 1995, the researchers interviewed almost 450 people every day for eight days to see how they dealt with life’s little ups and downs. They also measured the participants’ levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. 10 years later, they did exactly the same thing on the same people.

They found that the people who had the most trouble coping with minor stressors were also the most likely to develop chronic health conditions. And those who already had chronic conditions got worse. All in all, people who didn’t handle minor stressors well suffered from the kinds of conditions that are typically associated with people who struggle with chronic stress, things liked digestive problems, bladder infections, and increased levels of pain.

In addition, people who don’t handle stress well—whether it’s ongoing or just happens every once in a while, exercise less, eat worse, and have more bad health habits like drinking and smoking, all of which increase risk of diabetes, heart attack, and even the common cold.

Lead researcher, David M. Almeida, a psychologist at Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging, says that when it comes to dealing with stress, there are two types of people: Velcro types have more emotional responses to stress and have trouble letting go of minor problems. Teflon types coped better with the same types of stressors and tended to let things roll off their backs.

Whether you’re a Velcro or Teflon may have a lot to do with how you grew up. “Not surprisingly, people who have more financial and socioeconomic resources are more likely to be Teflon people,” said Dr. Almeida. “They also are less neurotic and have higher levels of cognitive skills.” He added that people raised with warm parental relationships and higher levels of education, and those who are clever and quick to solve problems, encounter fewer problems with stress.

The best approaches to dealing with acute or chronic stress are the old standards: exercise and lifestyle. You already know what to do. Now just start doing it.

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