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.) Good luck, shithead!
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.
Stress Spot: The Hair
Researchers from the University of Western Ontario may have found a biomarker to measure chronic stress. It's hair. They took follicle samples from about 100 men, half of whom where hospitalized for heart attacks, and found that hair cortisol was highest in the heart patients. Since hair grows about 1 centimeter a month, researchers used 3-centimeter samples to provide a record of stress levels over the previous three months. Scientists believe the findings bolster the theory that chronic stress may contribute to heart attack just as acute stress does.
The Fix: Focus on somebody besides numero uno. "People who have a problem with anxiety often get lost in measuring and judging themselves," says Mel Schwartz, a Connecticut-based psychotherapist. "The critical voice is enslaving." Try focusing on others. Showing respect and appreciation for others has an amazing ability to diffuse obsessive thoughts and behavior caused by preoccupation with the self.
Stress Spot: The Sympathetic Nervous System
A release of norepinephrine causes the heart to beat faster, blood pressure to rise, sweat to stain your shirt, and breathing to quicken to deliver more oxygen and glucose to muscles and tissues. Endorphins make blood vessels constrict to reduce bleeding in case of attack. This is what causes the hairs on the back of your neck and skull to stand on end. While stress hormones help us cope with danger, prolonged pressure can harm the heart and suppress the immune system, which may make us more vulnerable to everything from colds and flu to cancer.
The Fix: Twist yourself into a pretzel and laugh. Laughter Yoga practitioners swear that combining yogic breathing and stretching techniques and forced laughter helps them cope better with life stress. Studies show that, separately, yoga and laughter do stifle stress. For example: Two studies presented at the 2009 American College of Sports Medicine's annual meeting found that the blood vessels of people who watched comedy films were more pliable and experienced improved blood flow for up to 24 hours after the chuckles started.
Stress Spot: The Gut
Increased acids from stress churn your stomach and loosen your bowels (hence the soiling-yourself stress reaction). It can even alter the way the body processes fat, causing you to store more of it in your abdomen.
The Fix: Give yourself a hand. Try acupressure for a quick stress release. Massage the fleshy part between the thumb and index finger of one hand for 30 seconds with the thumb and first two fingers of your other hand. A study at Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that acupressure with lavender oil can reduce stress by up to 39 percent. Two other reports in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine identified 58 clinical trials showing that massage therapy and tai chi practice significantly reduce salivary cortisol, heart rate, blood pressure, and depression.
Stress Spot: Your DNA
Yes, stress can screw with your DNA, too! Chronically flooding your body with stress hormones can cause telomeres to shorten. Telomeres are genetic structures that protect the ends of our chromosomes from deterioration, and, if they shorten to a critical length, cells will no longer be able to multiply.
The Fix: Meditate. A recent Harvard Medical School study found that the physiological response from mindful meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, or even repetitive prayer can counteract cellular damage from chronic stress. Breathing lesson: When you feel anxious, disengage your mind by focusing on breathing deeply through your nose so your belly rises before your chest does, then exhale through your mouth. Do this for 5 minutes, concentrating only on your breath.
Stress Spot: Your Sex Life
Women who are distracted and stressed out often can't orgasm or even enjoy sex. Men may suffer erectile dysfunction when under stress.
The Fix: Unleash the oxytocin. Kissing, hugging, even holding hands can reduce stress because it raises levels of oxytocin, the hormone associated with bonding and love, say researchers at the University of North Carolina. And all that oxytocin zipping around your body may lead to another organic stress fix: sex.