The best explanation of stress we've ever heard comes from Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, PhD, the author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. "If you are a normal mammal," he notes, "stress is the three minutes of screaming terror on the savanna after which either it's over with or you're over with."
If you're a human mammal, stress comes not from fear of being eaten but worry about somebody eating your lunch. Unlike other animals, we have a large brain relative to our body size—a brain that worries. And now our worry is triggered by the passive-aggressive boss, the weight of a 30-year mortgage, and the job of caring for children and ill parents at the same time.
No wildebeest would understand these fears, but the perceived threats spark the same bodily survival responses that crocodile attacks do. And they last way longer than a croc's lunchtime. But you can do something about stress. Search and destroy. Here's where stress typically strikes and how to strike back.
Stress spot: The Brain
Chronic secretion of the stress hormone cortisol damages memory centers, including the hippocampus. When dendrites in the hippocampus shrivel excessively, we can be caught in perpetual stress, triggering anxiety disorders, depression, and margaritas at lunchtime.
The Fix: Don't be so damned conscientious. A Canadian study of 2,737 workers found that when people thought their poor job performance could have a serious impact on their coworkers, their company, or the environment, job stress increased. Responsible workers who saw their jobs as careers tended to say their jobs were highly stressful, while people who were satisfied with their jobs or who didn't think of them as careers were less likely to report stress. The lesson: Take a day off. The company won't go under if you're out for nine hours. (Note: This does not apply to air-traffic controllers.)
Bonus Instant Feel-Good Fix: Swear. Researchers at England's University of East Anglia Norwich looked into leadership styles and found that using swear words can reduce stress and boost camaraderie among coworkers. (It's also a good way to deal with pain, a separate British study found.)
Stress spot: The Neck, Head and Back
Pituitary, hypothalamic, and adrenal hormones flood the body, focusing your attention and alertness, sharpening vision, and preparing muscles to take action against a threat. When the perceived danger does not go away, you lose the ability to return to equilibrium.
The Fix: Create a three-legged life. Add balance to your home, your work, and yourself to create a buffer against stress. "If one leg of the stool goes down, you have others to hold you up," says Munir Soliman, MD, director of the Center for Wellness & Personal Growth at the University of California, San Diego.
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