Hidden Risks of Chronic Stress

Can’t de-stress? Your health could be on the line.

A frustrated woman stares at her computer.
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What you can do. Psychologists use the term "resilience" to describe how quickly people tend to recover from emotional setbacks, whether getting cut off in traffic or losing a job. The more resilient you are, the more you can limit the impact of stress on your health. Genetics play only a small role, says Richard Davidson, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In fact, research spanning decades at Davidson's and other labs confirms that anyone can become more resilient with practice.

To help his own patients, Stanford's Spiegel coined an acronym, FACE. In short: Face or acknowledge stressors rather than running away from them; Alter perceptions to view these challenges in a more positive way, such as through cognitive therapy, hypnosis, or mindfulness training; Cope actively, by proactively heading off future stressors when possible; and Express your emotions rather than holding them in. "People under stress often view emotion as the enemy, but expressing it appropriately is important," Spiegel says. For example, you don't want to tell your boss he's a jerk, but you can say, "I felt negated when you said that at the meeting. " Or sound off instead to your partner, a friend, support group, or therapist.

Finally, help your body function at its optimum level: Eat regular, balanced meals; aim for the recommended daily seven to nine hours of sleep for adults; and, especially, exercise 30 minutes each day. Even gentle walking is sufficient to boost mood and lower stress, according to the NIMH. More vigorous exercise may provide additional protection. A 2010 study by Epel's lab found that those all-important telomeres were longer in highly stressed postmenopausal women who met the exercise goals outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes at least 150 minutes of brisk walking each week, plus two days of strength training. Sue Wasserman keeps her anxiety in check with daily treks along local hiking trails. "I may get stressed about an incoming check being late," she says, but as she starts moving, her worries and tension seem to ebb away.

[See Stressed Out? Try Mindfulness Meditation]