While not every stress reduction technique suits everyone, any incremental change -- a little more exercise, a little more sleep, a little deep breathing and a few more nights out with friends -- will help.
Evolution has conditioned us to respond to stress as a physical threat, which is why our bodies produce hormones that prepare us to flee from trouble or fight back physically. However, running or punching usually isn't appropriate in our daily routines, so those hormones accumulate. This is where exercise comes in.
Initially, an intense workout is a stressor, boosting the heart rate, blood pressure and adrenaline. But regular exercise leads to lower baseline heart rates, lower blood pressure and lower stress hormone levels when at rest. This makes occasional surges of stress easier to handle.
Vigorous exercise also increases the body's core temperature, meaning the body has to dilate its blood vessels (which stress hormones restrict) to let heat escape. That dilation lowers blood pressure and creates more capacity to circulate oxygen-rich blood.
Regular exercise will bring resting adrenaline rates down so the body has more room for the next flood of stress hormones, says Seattle-based preventive cardiologist Dr. Sarah Speck. Strong evidence also indicates that exercise helps reduce depression, which can accompany long-term stress.
Sleep on it
Here's the paradox: When you're stressed, sleep often suffers. Yet a good night's sleep helps guard against the ravages of stress.
Even one night of tossing and turning raises the level of inflammatory cytokines, says Michael Irwin, director of the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology. Cytokines are chemical messengers, or proteins, that send messages between immune cells, and nerve and brain cells. Some promote inflammation; others are anti-inflammatory. A wide spectrum of conditions, including cardiovascular disease, arthritis, diabetes, certain cancers, obesity and functional decline, are linked to an increase in inflammatory cytokines. Experimental sleep deprivation has been found to alter immune responses and increase inflammation.
A study conducted at UCLA in 2006 looked at 30 healthy volunteers who spent four nights in a sleep lab. The first three, they slept from 11 p.m to 7 a.m., to establish their baseline for inflammatory markers in their blood. The fourth, they stayed awake between 3 and 7 a.m. Just that one night of interrupted sleep induced a three-fold increase in inflammatory markers, the study found.
"High levels of inflammation are markers for an aging immune system. People who are chronically stressed and don't get enough sleep have a greater mortality risk and experience accelerated aging," Irwin says.
The prescription: six to eight hours of sleep a night. Fewer than 5 1/2 hours and inflammation markers rise along with associated health risks.
Get out more
If you feel socially isolated and lack the emotional support of people around you, you're at an increased risk of mortality, illness and coronary disease.
In a paper published last year in the journal Genome Biology, biologists at UCLA found that the immune system's inflammatory response was much higher in cells from people who perceived themselves as socially isolated and lonely. Researchers studied gene expression in 14 individuals. Half the group had previously scored in the top 15% of the loneliness scale; the other half scored in the bottom 15. Across the board, the genes of the lonely group's members expressed higher inflammatory responses, and lower anti-inflammatory responses than those in the more social group.
"Genes can either be turned on or turned off," says Irwin. "In socially isolated people, genes that turn on inflammation were more likely to be on, and those that suppressed inflammation were more likely off."
Social networks also help people cope with disaster. Researchers in Louisiana looked at how people's networks reduced the stressful effects after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in 2005. "People who had better social support fared much better," says Jeanne Hurlbert, lead investigator and professor of sociology at Louisiana State University.
In telephone interviews conducted right after Katrina with residents of two New Orleans-area parishes, 49% of those who said they had enough people to help them only some of the time reported a high level of distress. (High distress was defined as experiencing each day at least two of several symptoms: such as feeling that you couldn't get going, feeling sad, having trouble sleeping, feeling that everything was an effort, feeling that you couldn't shake the blues or having trouble focusing on a task.) Of those who said they had enough people to help them most of the time, 23% reported high distress. Yet, of those who said they had enough people to help them all the time, only 19% reported high stress, says Hurlbert.