Stress is a normal part of modern daily life, but most people are not aware of the negative consequences of stress on their health–until it is too late. Some people are able to cope with stress better than others, while others take practical steps to reduce their stress each day to diminish the wear and tear on their bodies and minds.

However, most of us are not aware of just how much stress is harming our health until we are diagnosed with a serious illness such as heart disease and then told we need to make drastic changes to our lifestyle if we wish to live longer.

So what exactly is stress? Stress is the body and mind’s response to any unusual event or situation which challenges us and makes us feel under pressure in some way. Stress provides the body with a burst of energy in the form of adrenaline, the “fight or flight” response that is part of human nature.

People either run away from the thing that stresses them, or they turn and try to deal with it in a variety of ways, some of which will be more successful strategies than others.

Our life is stressful from the moment we are born. There is the stress of birth, of feeling hunger, or needing our diaper changed. At school, there is the stress of performing well on exams, in presentations in front of the class, the school play, or on the school sports team. In our university years, there are the stresses of needing to maintain a good enough GPA to stay in school, or perhaps even get a scholarship or acceptance to grad school. Then there are social stresses, dating, relationships, friendships, peer pressure, and more.

As adults outside of school, there is the stress of whether or not we will find a job. If we don’t, there is the stress of trying to make ends meet. Even if we do manage to get a job, there is the stress of trying to keep it, let alone try to get a raise, promotion, and so on. Even happy occasions such as a new job, wedding, baby or home can trigger stress in the body.

Most of us work very hard and ‘burn the candle at both ends’ in order to try to keep up with all the demands on our time every day. This can lead to a lack of sleep and of ‘downtime’ or relaxation to help recharge the body and mind. The lack of rest and downtime can in turn lead to a weakened immune system.

A lack of sleep has been shown to have the same effects on the immune system as stress. Stress in turn can interfere with one’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. This in turn can create a vicious cycle of even more stress through sleep deprivation, which can leave your immune system vulnerable and open to attack.

If you’ve been acting like a workaholic, not getting enough sleep, and not taking time out for relaxation, it’s time to get your stress under control. Above all, you need to avoid burning out and damaging your immune system so much that it triggers excessive inflammation, since inflammation has been implicated in many medical conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes and certain forms of cancer.

There are many ways to reduce stress effectively, from yoga to meditation, tai chi to a warm, relaxing bath, a good night’s sleep to spending quality time with friends and family. If you have been overworking, it’s time to make some new appointments on your calendar with yourself in order to reduce stress, add exercise and sleep to your daily routine, and care better for yourself even as you boost your immune system.

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