Pressed by Stress? Learn to Roll with the blows.(LIFE - HEALTH)

Article excerpt

Byline: Gabriella Boston, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Erica Lodish of Bethesda used to head straight for the fridge when she got home from work. She buried the stresses of work, family problems and disappointments by eating, preferably cheese and crackers, anything salty.

"I eat to calm myself," Ms. Lodish says. "I don't eat to reward myself."

Eating - too much - is just one of many ways to deal with stress, a condition that leaves us feeling frazzled or panicked. Doctors say stress is becoming more and more common and that some people "worry themselves so sick" that they wear down their immune systems, become depressed or suffer heart problems.

However, stress is not always a bad thing. By releasing the stress hormone cortisol, our brain puts the body on high alert. As the cortisol is released, our pupils dilate and our heart rate and blood flow increase. We're in fight or flight mode.

This mode used to be crucial for our survival when we were hunters and gatherers. As we stood face to face with a lion, for example, the stress would enable us to run fast or fight hard. We had a physical reaction to a physical situation.

Now, instead of facing a lion - a very concrete enemy for some - we face less concrete fears and worries: Maybe we'll lose our job, or our money on the volatile stock market. Running or fending off a foe with fists won't help against those threats. So, we feel frayed, anxious, stressed out.

Job-related stress is the most common form of stress.

"The nature of stress in primitive man was physical, while the nature of stress in modern man is not a life-threatening event that happens every four months. We may experience it three or four times a day," says Dr. Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y.

No wonder stress can build up inside us.

"I call it toxic stress," says Dr. Pamela Peeke, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and author of "Fight Fat After Forty," which deals with the relationship between stress and overeating.

"If we don't release the stress, it becomes incredibly toxic. It can be dangerous, even life-threatening," Dr. Peeke says. It can cause heart disease, and even cancer, say some doctors.

From a physiological standpoint, not releasing the stress means that the cortisol remains in our bloodstream and we remain on high alert, Dr. Peeke says. Moving our bodies - as in fight or flight - helps reduce stress, since physical activity helps shut off the production of cortisol, which eventually leaves the body by being excreted in the urine.

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While stress is a biochemical phenomenon (the cortisol-induced hyperalertness), what triggers it is very individual. If you strike someone on the arm, the person most likely will bruise, but may not get stressed out by the action.

"Stress is completely in the eyes of the beholder. It's about attitude," Dr. Peeke says. "It's about perception. A stress can be perceived as an everyday thing, or a life-threatening thing, depending on whom you talk to."

One of Dr. Rosch's favorite examples of differences in people's perception deals with a roller coaster ride: The people in front with their arms raised are having the greatest thrill of their lives, while the people in the back are holding on for dear life, wishing nothing more than that the ride will end. They perceive the ride as a torture chamber.

"Some things that are stressful for some people are pleasurable for others. Different strokes for different folks. Stress is very much about perceptions and expectations," Dr. Rosch says. "The perception of not having control creates stress."

While stress is very individual, there are some aspects of it that are gender- specific, Dr. Peeke says.

As care providers, women tend to overthink and worry about everything, Dr. …