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If you're anything like me, when I get stressed, I GET STRESSED. My dad's birthday is this week and I've not gotten him anything yet, my son just told me he has a huge school project due tomorrow, taxes are due today, the trash needs to be taken out before the morning, my big project deadline was five minutes ago, and I'm tired. I can feel that stress is making me more tired, gray and maybe a little bit crazy. But what is stress doing to my body that I can't necessarily see or feel?

How does stress level affect health?

Just a physical stress affects our bodies, so does emotional stress. Our bodies react to emotional stress by releasing into the blood stress hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. They prepare the body for the fight or flight response, a primal reaction designed to help us in sticky situations. In this response, our hearts beat faster and our blood vessels constrict, causing more blood to get to the core of the body instead of the extremities. This process raises blood pressure, but only temporarily; when the stress reaction goes away, blood pressure returns to its pre-stress level. Called situational stress, its effects are generally short-lived, disappearing when the stressful event is over.

Fight or flight is a valuable response when we are faced with an imminent threat that we can handle by confronting or fleeing. But often times we can’t handle stressful events with those options in our modern world. Chronic (constant) stress causes our bodies to go into high gear on and off for days or weeks at a time. Still, the links between chronic stress and blood pressure are unclear. But we do know that constant stress causes an increased risk for the following:

Spring clean your brain. 

Learning new lifestyle habits sometimes requires clearing out the mental clutter. When you can turn down the stress response, you can tune in to good health. Learn how humor can help your heart.

Here are some ways you can learn to be mindful about stressful situations and how you might change what is within your power to change.

Decrease stress by changing your expectations.

Give yourself enough time to get things done. Time management works wonders for reducing stress. Don’t try to pack too much into every moment.

Learn to say “no.” Don’t promise too much. Reduce the amount of tension by having a shorter of list items that must be done. This may require you to reevaluate priorities and make difficult choices, but everyone must learn to live within manageable limits.

Reduce stress by recognizing where you have control

You can’t control all the outside events in your life, but you can change how you handle them emotionally and psychologically. Try to learn to accept things you can’t change. You don’t have to solve all of life’s problems.

Think about problems under your control and make a plan to solve them. You could talk to your boss about difficulties at work, talk with your neighbor if his dog bothers you or get help when you have too much to do.

Know your stress triggers. Think ahead about what may upset you. Some things you can avoid. For example, spend less time with people who bother you or avoid driving in rush-hour traffic.

Reduce stress by taking care of your mood

Relaxing is important, even if you are busy. Take 15 to 20 minutes a day to sit quietly, breathe deeply and think of a peaceful picture.

Spend time developing supportive and nurturing relationships. We all need supportive and encouraging relationships. Invest yourself in developing relationships that build character and foster growth.

Give yourself the gift of good self maintenance. Engage in physical activity regularly. Do what you enjoy; walk, swim, ride a bike or jog to get your big muscles going. Letting go of the tension in your body will help you feel better.

Limit alcohol, don’t overeat and don’t smoke.

Relaxing for short periods during your workday, at night and on weekends may help lower your blood pressure. Another great stress-buster is to get regular physical activity, as recommended by the American Heart Association.

Reduce stress by practicing gratitude and joy

Practice gratitude. Change how you respond to difficult situations, focusing on the positive, not the negative. Expressing gratitude to others can also boost your level of feeling good about life and reduce stressful thoughts.

Know what brings you pleasure and find ways to enjoy the experience. Perhaps you enjoy volunteer opportunities or cooking your favorite foods. By taking time not only to participate in these activities but to intentionally enjoy them, you can build a satisfying life rather than hurry through your “relaxing activities” at a stressful pace.

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