So stressed you could scream–loudly and wildly, while kicking and punching, or maybe wilting to the ground in a heap? Yeah, we get it: It seems to be going around. Americans' stress levels are nearly two times higher than what's considered safe. And the complications are enough to fray anyone's nerves: suppressed immune system; high blood pressure; elevated risk of stomach acid and ulcers; headaches, backaches, and neck-aches; colds; and even cancer. Stress is also linked to shortening of the telomeres, protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that shorten each time a cell dies. Research suggests that we want our telomeres to be as long as possible, because length is associated with a lower risk of developing cancer and heart disease, as well as a longer life.
"Everyone is stressed, and we've begun to think of that as normal, because we've gotten used to it," says psychotherapist and speaker Robert Lawrence Friedman, author of How to Relax in 60 Seconds or Less. "We sometimes try to pretend it isn't there, but stress is a hidden killer."
Friedman, who's been teaching stress-management techniques since 1993, highlights three primary stressors: environmental, social, and physical. But worst of all? Our thoughts. He's gotten to know a number of "stress hearty" folks who don't get frazzled at all and, as a result, enjoy healthier lives. "They've learned that they can't control the environment–but what they can control is their reaction to it," he says. "They use stress as a positive, and they actually look forward to it, because they know they can learn to deal with it. And then the next time, they won't have the same negative reaction."