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August 19, 2008

What Stresses Us Out?

It's become an almost fashionable lament, a way of saying I have a lot on my plate - life is rich. But does it also mean you're putting your health at risk?

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stressed woman with headache

Photo Credit: pidjoe/iStock

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The causes of stress change with the times. While a typewriter ribbon's breaking during a hectic day in the steno pool could really get the blood racing in another era, our current demons are uniquely 21st century. Based on the American Psychological Association's 2008 midyear survey, here's what women consider "significantly stressful" now:

1. MONEY 78%
Widespread layoffs, housing foreclosures, and record-high gas prices: No wonder money matters climbed from last year's number-two spot.

2. HOUSEHOLD RESPONSIBILITIES 67%
Multitasking now more than ever, women put in 10 more hours of weekly work at home and on the job than men do, says Debra Nelson, Ph.D., professor of management at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater.

3. WORK 60%
Hello, techno-stress. With demands not only called in, but e-mailed, IMed, and SMSed 24/7, we no longer have time to recover from yesterday's deadline. In addition to the explosive pace, "you have people sitting six feet away who don't talk to each other," says Dr. Paul J. Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress. "There's a loss of human connection and social support."

4. INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS 56%
Talk about a snowball effect: Work and money woes turn time with partners into hotbeds of stress; caring for both kids and aging

parents puts some over the edge.

5. TERRORISM 43%
Unless a loved one is in the military, most people respond to the headlines and then go on with their lives, says the APA's Nancy Molitor, Ph.D. Today's numbers are a sharp contrast to a Pew Research Center study conducted immediately after 9/11 that found 79 percent of women suffering from stress-related depression linked to the events.

THE GENETIC COMPONENT
"Some people come right out of the womb better equipped to deal with stress," says neurogeneticist Dr. David Goldman. In a recent study on emotion and resiliency, he found that participants with lower levels of the chemical messenger neuropeptide Y (NPY), which is released to help moderate the body-brain response to stress, were more likely to have an anxious reaction to images of threatening facial expressions, while those with higher NPY levels were less emotionally affected. Biology predicts a full 50 percent of how we perceive and manage stress (and NPY is not the only key player), but Goldman also believes that "our genes are not our destiny." He notes, "Cognitive strategies for managing your life and dealing with your relative weaknesses"--basically, positive thinking--"can, and should, of course, be learned."

SURPRISINGLY STRESSFUL JOBS:
LIBRARIAN Gripes: Repetitive work; confined to whispering all day --The British Psychological Society
MANICURIST Gripes: Long shifts; aching joints; exposure to noxious chemicals --University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Department of Women's Studies
FLIGHT ATTENDANT Gripes: Exhaustion; rude passengers; missed meals --The University of Nottingham, U.K.

OVERSTRESSED & OVERWEIGHT
The link has been tough to prove, but after a recent study at Emory University involving the eating habits of female rhesus monkeys, Mark Wilson, Ph.D., concluded that chronic stress could wreak havoc on appetite- control systems, either by dampening levels of leptin, the satiety hormone, or upping levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone. The bottom line: Chronic stress leaves us scavenging for pound cake.
A waist-whittling pill? Any truth to those annoying TV commercials that claim to chisel away "stubborn belly fat" caused by cortisol? While the stress hormone can indeed contribute to muffin tops, the effect of the pills is negligible. In fact, the Federal Trade Commission has charged the marketers of CortiSlim and CortiStress with making false claims.

VIRTUAL STRESS RELIEF
Feeling crabby about your first life? As meditation spaces are becoming more popular in Second Life, doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital are leading guided meditation sessions in this virtual world to see if a stress-free avatar could mean a stress-free you.

COMPUTER GAMES Take a rest from Facebook-stalking your ex, and try your hand at Bejeweled 2 instead: A recent survey by PopCap Games found that 90 percent of female gamers considered puzzles and online word games a stress-reliever.

BIOFEEDBACK The practice of monitoring functions like pulse and breathing--and controlling them to alter your mindset (i.e., induce calm)--has been used by doctors since the 1940s, but new handheld gadgets mean you can de-stress at home. The real deal: Helicor's StressEraser ($299) is backed by an advisory board of doctors, and HeartMath's emWave ($199, shown) is being used on anxiety patients at the medical centers at Duke and Stanford.

THE CANCER CONNECTION
Is "Don't worry, be happy" a sound cancer-prevention strategy? Rat experiments suggest that stress hormones can alter the immune system or even (in ovarian cancer) act on tumor cells directly, accelerating growth or expansion into other body parts. Strong social support has been linked to helping patients live longer.

THE SEX FACTOR
Can a steamy romp reduce tension? Excluding those plagued with does-he-really-like-me insecurities, yes--thanks to deep breathing and the endorphin-inducing physical exertion of getting it on. A study at Scotland's University of Paisley found that after intercourse, loosened-up lovers reacted better to stressful situations.


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