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Occasional stress can be beneficial.  It can help us increase focus, sharpen our problem-solving skills and power through difficult situations.  But when stress becomes chronic, it can have negative physical and emotional effects which bleed into every avenue of life.

According to The American Institute of Stress, “There are numerous emotional and physical disorders that have been linked to stress including depression, anxiety, heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, immune system disturbances that increase susceptibility to infections, a host of viral linked disorders ranging from the common cold and herpes to AIDS and certain cancers, as well as autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. In addition, stress can have direct effects on the skin (rashes, hives, atopic dermatitis), the gastrointestinal system (GERD, peptic ulcer, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis) and can contribute to insomnia and degenerative neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease. In fact, it’s hard to think of any disease in which stress cannot play an aggravating role, or any part of the body that is not affected (see stress effects on the body stress diagram).” The list of stress ramifications will undoubtedly grow as research continues.

How do you know if your stress has reached a potentially dangerous level?  Check out these “50 common signs and symptoms of stress”  So you notice you’ve been experiencing all but a few of the 50 signs and symptoms you just read… all is not lost.  Try incorporating some or all of the following suggestions into your daily life:

1)  Practice relaxation and deep breathing techniques,  Sit comfortably in a quiet environment, practice deep controlled breathing and then repeat one word or phrase quietly to yourself each time you exhale.  Do this for 10 – 20 minutes twice a day.  You can also take mini “breathing breaks” anytime during your day, for instant stress relief.  Breathe in through your nose for a count of “5”, then breathe out for a count of “5”.

2)  Exercise more.  Thirty minutes of exercise 4 – 5 days each week can help lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels, increase “feel-good” endorphins and stimulate your body’s appropriately timed production of melatonin, so you can get a good night’s sleep,  The exercise doesn’t need to be vigorous, or in single 30 minute blocks.  Ten minutes here, ten minutes there works just as well.

3)  Sleep more.  Establish a regular sleep/wake routine and try to get at least six hours of sleep every night.  Avoid consuming alcohol for at least two hours before bedtime; stay off your computer, iPad, or smart phone within 30 minutes of going to bed.  Adequate sleep = less stress!

4)  Eat and drink smarter.  Take time to eat, and relax while doing so.  Make healthy choices whenever possible, decreasing your sugar, fat and simple carbohydrate intake.  If it’s “enriched” or contains “artificial flavors, colors or preservatives” you might want to rethink your choice…  If you like to drink alcohol, cut back.  That martini may make you feel better about having to deal with your idiot boss, but alcohol is actually a depressant, and consuming too much of it can raise cortisol levels – remember, the “stress hormone”,

5)  Cut yourself a break and laugh more!  Decide which of the stressors in your life you can change and work on changing them.  If you can’t change something, let it go!  Every time it comes back, kick it out again.  You’re not responsible for everything. J   Laughter really is the best medicine, so look at a funny and have a belly laugh any time you can.  Life is too short to forget to laugh.