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Can Stress Actually Kill You?

We all know how important good stress management skills are... right? In a busy world, with unending work and responsibilities piling up, life can get the best of us. But how bad is it for you, really?

Can stress actually kill you?

Is effective stress management a matter of life and death?

You bet it is!

From a biological perspective, stress makes perfect sense. If you're about to get chomped on by a bear or run over by a car, your stress hormones better kick your butt into gear fast or you could be in a heap of trouble.

However, it turns out that your mortgage issues, relationship troubles, problems with employment and looming exams all trigger the same hormonal stress response in your body and unlike most animals, which eventually experience a major decrease in these hormones after the danger has passed, human beings can't seem to find the off switch!

We all need better stress management skills.

Even though mental stress is rarely a matter of life and death, we flood our bodies with stress hormones from mental and emotional stress daily anyways. Sometimes, it's multiple times every hour. Talk about crazy stress management practices.

When we do this, our blood pressure increases making the heart race. In addition, muscles tighten and become rigid and the gastro-intestinal system shuts down so important resources can be redirected to the job of saving your life.

When was the last time that paying bills meant life or death? Unless you're in deep with a gangster or other loan shark, this is seldom the case.

Good stress management is the solution to the problem.

In Japan, a condition known in translation as "death from overwork" or "Karoshi" in their native tongue, amounts to sudden heart attacks and strokes when the body shuts down from stress overload. The problem results from an overdose of stress hormones and it can kill. When you have chronic and acute stress, your arteries become clogged and this prevents blood from getting to the heart quickly, which can ultimately lead to heart attacks.

Once again, good stress management is the only solution to this problem.

Stress also affects the brain by shrinking brain cells and by reducing the number of branch extensions in the brain, both of which affect memory and learning. Many people believe that all night study sessions improve learning, but the opposite is true; sleep deprivation is counter-productive to effective learning and memory retention.

Another major problem is DNA and how it is affected by poor stress management. In order to stay young and even to stay alive, we need the DNA in our cells to be in good shape at all times; the DNA is like a little brain and each cell has one. The DNA contains telomeres on the ends of each chromosome and we need these to be in tact in order for your cells to keep duplicating themselves, thereby keeping us alive.

In a normal healthy, person, these telomeres slowly get shorter with age and eventually they run out like the fuse on a stick of dynamite. When this happens, the cell stops duplicating and dies. It's plain to see that telomeres are a major player in the process of aging and length of life.

So now the bad news!

Poor stress management can accelerate the shortening of these telomeres making those cells die even faster.

Cortisol and Oxytocin

The Good and the Bad of Stress Management

The name of the most problematic hormone is Cortisol and while you can't really see it, it has a considerable amount of power in your body and should not be ignored. We've already seen some of the damage that Cortisol can do, but Cortisol can also turn off your immune system by lowering your white blood cell count.

Doing this once or twice a month or year is usually not a problem, but when you are stressed out several times each day or hour, from emotional issues or mental stress, it becomes a very serious problem. You may have noticed that highly stressed people are also sick a lot of the time. It's because they have disabled their immune systems making them susceptible to every virus that comes along. Their poor stress management skills have disabled a key player in their health and wellness arsenal.

Cortisol can also stop your inflammatory response, needed if you physically injure yourself. Could this be a major contributor to the problems of chronic pain experienced by many people? If your inflammatory response is not working properly, then you will be in pain, a lot of pain.

Once again, simple stress management practices can save the day.

Some evidence also suggests that prolonged stress can contribute to cancer cells being able to maintain a blood supply. Without a blood supply, cancer cells cannot grow, so it's important to live in a way that does not cause these damaged cells to multiply and that means keeping stress as low as possible at all times.

If heart attacks and stroke weren't bad enough, now we're talking some really serious consequences of poor stress management skills.

Thankfully, we are not left empty-handed; your body also makes a hormone called Oxytocin, which reduces your body's stress response by helping your blood vessels relax. Oxytocin is an amazing stress management tool that can be leveraged to your benefit. Oxytocin is very powerful and can even regenerate the heart from stress related damage.

So how do we get more Oxytocin, also known as the trust or 'cuddle' hormone?

You get it from positive social interactions and in doing nice things for others. People who spend more time with others create a buffer or resilience to stress through the creation of extra Oxytocin. Human touch also causes the body to produce Oxytocin and there are food sources of this little gem as well.

But your caring, giving acts must be genuine. You must really want to do them. Conversely, if you are just doing them to get a better resume or portfolio for your college application, then you will very likely be stressed once again. In this situation, you will likely view your volunteer work or other giving act as a waste of time and thus, the activity will produce more of the destructive Cortisol rather than the much needed healthy Oxytocin.

So when life gets the best of you, just remember, you don't have to go it alone. Spend some time with those you love or do something nice for someone else - it just may save your life and it's an excellent stress management tool.

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STRESS is out of control! In fact, life is out of control! Effective stress control and problem solving skills may be the only thing that will keep your head above water in the next decade. It really is becoming quite serious and so should be taken very seriously. What is your plan for the next decade? Or, will you just let stress win?

Maybe you thought life was crazy in the first decade of the 21st century. Unfortunately, it's only going to get worse. Experts predict 10 years of economic devastation before things improve. A whole bunch of economic factors are coming together all at the same time and the results of this trend will not be for the weak-hearted.

Your coping skills may well be a key factor in deciding who wins and who loses. And, I don’t mean the lottery! I am talking about your health and wellness. Poor stress coping skills can lead to serious illness.

In the past 30 years, chronic degenerative disease has been steadily on the rise. Cancer, Heart Disease, Diabetes, Asthma, Arthritis, Fibromyalgia, Chrohn’s and Depression are just a few of the, roughly, 70 chronic degenerative diseases that experts say are directly caused by stress. We are, literally, fighting for our lives. How much more stress can any of us really take?

But, there is hope! Achieving and maintaining wellness is more than possible. So, come with us to learn everything YOU need to know in order to take back control of your health and your life.

Yours in wellness,

Jill M. Prince, MBA., CHC

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