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There’s a long trail of chemical reactions that lead to that anxious feeling you get when stress in your personal or professional lives overcomes you, says Don Power, president of the American Institute for Preventive Medicine.
"When we react to stressful events, the brain triggers chemical changes throughout our system," he explains. The end result is extra wear and tear on your body.
The domino effect of stress goes like this: The hypothalamus triggers the pituitary gland, which releases a chemical to your adrenals. Adrenals then release adrenaline to certain target cells found throughout the body. When adrenaline enters the bloodstream, it travels quickly to those cells and causes a number of immediate reactions. For example, your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, sugar reserves are released from the liver, blood is diverted from the intestine and directed toward skeleton muscles, the pupils of your eyes dilate, and metabolic rates increase throughout your body.
You’re now fully prepared for the body’s ancient "flight or fight" response. However, at least in your professional life, flight isn’t usually an option.
"When stressful situations constantly trigger these changes, the cumulative effect on the body is very destructive," Powell says.
So stress takes its toll, resulting in symptoms such as tense muscles, insomnia, fatigue, cramps, headaches, and depression. It also is a major contributor to six of the leading causes of death in the United States: coronary heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidental injuries, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.
Yet some people handle stress better than others. "The ability to handle stress usually relates to the coping mechanisms available to you," Power says. He offers this quiz to find out how well you handle stress. Use these scale values: Always = 5, Usually = 4, Sometimes = 3, Seldom = 2, Never = 1. A score of 17 or less indicates a lack of coping mechanism and increase in the risk of stress related disease, Powell says.
1. I have a job or do other work that I enjoy._____
2. I find it easy to relax and express my feelings._____
3. I recognize and prepare for events or situations that are likely to be stressful._____
4. I have close friends, relatives, or others that I can talk to about personal matters and call on to help when needed._____
5. I participate in group activities (such as church and community organizations) or hobbies that I enjoy._____
6. I practice at least one relaxation technique daily. _____