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Ever wonder why you always get sick after bouts of stress? Health's resident psychiatrist explains.

March 10, 2017

During stressful moments, our bodies are designed to gear up and go into defense mode. Levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol rise, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your breath might quicken, and your muscles tense up.

These physiological changes come in handy if you’re facing an acute emergency (say, you have to quickly climb out of a submerged car) but not when you’re constantly barraged with more ordinary annoyances (you can’t find your work ID! Your computer crashes! Traffic makes you late!). Putting your body into this overactive, fight-or-flight state for drawn-out periods can weaken your immune response, triggering various symptoms (gastrointestinal problems, headaches, insomnia) and contributing to everything from respiratory infections to heart disease. Now, there is no such thing as living stress-free, but you knew that already. What’s key is how you manage what life throws at you—you want to short-circuit worry before it overloads you.

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One of the best stress-reduction strategies is controlled, deep breathing, studies show. Inhale while expanding your belly, pause, then exhale slowly to a count of five; repeat for a few minutes. You can also sweat out your angst: Aerobic activity helps lower levels of stress hormones. Even a 20-minute walk can calm you down.

And don’t underestimate the power of a good vent session with a friend, partner, or therapist. Talking through stress helps diminish it fairly quickly. I also find that interrupting tense periods by adding some moments of pure, simple joy makes a difference. As adults, we often forget how important it is to play, whether that means skipping something at work to catch a midday movie or just going offline from e-mail after dinner and cracking up at a favorite sitcom.

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Final note: One of the biggest causes of chronic stress that I see is trying to be a one-woman show. If you always feel overwhelmed, it might be a signal that you need to do some bigger-picture strategizing, like pruning your workload or social commitments. Don’t be afraid to delegate, ask for help from associates at work or your family at home, and eliminate tasks from your to-do list that are not actual priorities.

 

Gail Saltz, MD, is a psychiatrist and television commentator in New York City who specializes in health, sex, and relationships.