Changing Your Life: Managing Your Stress

Everyone has their pet peeves. They are those one or two things that can put you over the edge, and make your stress and anxiety levels skyrocket.

When we asked around, people had no shortage of answers.

"Poor punctuality."

"Having to wait in line."

"The delays at the airports."

"Tailgaters on the highway," said one man, "[It's] dangerous, aggravating, rude. I can feel my heart start pumping just thinking about it."

Similar sentiments echoed here at ABC.

"Plane goes toward the runway and then halfway out it comes to a dead stop," said "Good Morning America" anchor George Stephanopoulos. "Forty-five minutes, an hour, hour and a half goes by and they tell you nothing. Drives me nuts."

"This job is pretty high stress," said senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper, echoing what many feel about their careers. "A lot of grinding of the teeth at night."

"[When] someone throws a cigarette butt," said "GMA" anchor Robin Roberts, "That gets me."

@#$%%##@!!!!!!!

The reality here in these situations is that you can't often control what's stressing you out, but you absolutely can control how you're reacting to that stress.

For example, let's say a driver cuts in front of you while you're going 60 on the highway. Here's one response you might have: "Wow, that driver isn't being very safe." And here's another: "That %@!ing @%$ just cut me off!!!...god $@#$!!"

The difference is that when you lose your temper, the body goes into fight-or-flight mode, as if there is danger, a real threat of harm. Adrenaline levels in the blood shoot up, stress hormone levels rise, blood pressure spikes, and the heart shifts from pumping five quarts of blood a minute to shooting through 20 quarts of blood a minute.

"What's been shown in a lot of research is that people whose blood pressure goes up more when they are under stress are more likely to have heart disease 10 or 15 years down the road," says Dr. Redford Williams, a psychiatrist and head of behavioral medicine at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

"If you find yourself just continually grousing about these things and ruminating, that's a pretty good sign that you're putting yourself at risk," he adds.

Not only that, your blood is more likely to clot when you're under stress, which could lead to a stroke. Additionally, stress hormone levels spike, damaging cells in your brain, impairing your ability to remember.

It Could Be in Your Genes

"People ... who have a very low threshold to get angry," adds Williams, "people with this personality type, are anywhere from four to five times more likely by age 50 to come down with heart disease or to have died from any cause."

Williams and a team at Duke have created strategies proven to reduce stress levels in their heart patients, and these strategies hold remarkable promise for the rest of us.

The doctors at Duke actually have been able to identify genes associated with higher levels of hostility in men and women. They are hoping to use the information to create personalized medicine by identifying who is at a high risk for getting overstressed and teaching those people how to best manage difficult situations.

Three Simple Questions

So what's the key to staying calm? They say it lies in asking three simple questions whenever your anger rears its ugly head.

The first: Is this important? Does this really matter?

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