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Why You Should Stop Stressing Over Stress

Science supports living for today and here's how to do it

We've all heard the bad news. Stress can lead to a panoply of problems, from depression and fatigue to cancer and heart disease, and perhaps, as recent research suggests, premature death.

The unrelenting onslaught of information about these dangers can itself create more stress, as we worry about our health and longevity on top of woes over jobs, finances, college-age children with limited job prospects and caring for aged parents.
(MORE: How to Stop Stressing Over Your Child’s Job Search)

But now comes — at last — news that may bring your anxiety level down a notch or two. Despite research documenting the potential dangers of stress, it is not a foregone conclusion that you will get sick or come down with any of the diseases or ailments associated with this problem.

According to Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology and director of the Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity and Disease at Carnegie Mellon University, we humans actually have quite a bit of resistance and resilience. "Most people who are stressed out can cope with it," suggests Cohen.

Who Suffers Most

This is not to imply that Cohen, one of the nation's leading stress researchers, is pooh-poohing others’ findings. But he suggests that stress is one of a number of factors that influence an individual's prognosis for good health, including genetics and environmental factors.

"Stress is one of many things that contributes to health and wellness over time," says Cohen. And often, when stressors are eliminated, the body slowly recovers from its impacts.

(MORE: 7 Ways to Avoid Stress-Related Weight Gain)

So who tends to be most negatively affected by stress? Chronic stress seems to be most damaging, including stress that begins early in life, such as childhood trauma. But stress is also an individual matter, and one person's stress may be another's motivating challenge.

An important marker to heed: "Stress is damaging when the level of stress exceeds one's ability to cope with it," says Cohen.

What Works To Ease Stress

In his research, Cohen has found that the biggest variable for most people in dealing with stress is the availability of social support systems, which provides the means for individuals to deal with stressors. A meaningful chat with a good pal over a cup of coffee can help reduce stress.

(MORE: 10 Apps to Relax Your Body and Mind)

"Find something that works for you," says UCLA geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Helen Lavretsky. Her new book, Resilience and Aging, documents how a person’s negative reaction to stress can be offset by enhanced resilience — the ability to bounce back from adversity and maintain individual biological and psychological equilibrium. "If it's humor or feeling cozy at home, that's fine. Joy is essential, Spiritual connections, whether religious or to nature, give people another tool to offload their worries,” she says.

Lavretsky, director of the Late Life Stress and Wellness Research Program at the UCLA, says her life changed after starting yoga, which demonstrated to her the importance of having balance in life. "Understanding that balance is essential," says Lavretsky. "Life is stressful. You have to prioritize and not sweat the small stuff." 

"Don't worry about how long you will live," she advises. "Make sure you are healthy and enjoy today. Don't worry about the sky falling."

Jeanne Dorin is a Los Angeles-based writer who often covers health and wellness.

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