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02/16/2013 09:18 am ET

Good Stress: Does Stressing Out Have Benefits?

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By Melinda Wenner Moyer

You know that too much stress isn't good for your health, but it turns out too little isn't ideal, either. Here's how to keep the pressure on -- without boiling over.

There are three things we're guaranteed in life, says health educator Carol J. Scott, MD: "Death, taxes, and stress." And that can be a good thing -- the stress part, that is. Because while chronic stress -- the kind that never seems to let up -- can set off dangerous inflammation in the body, increasing your risk for heart disease, obesity, and breast cancer, it turns out that in small doses, stress is actually healthy.

Short-term stress triggers the production of protective chemicals and increases activity in immune cells that boost the body's defenses; think of it as having your own personal repair crew. "A burst of stress quickly mobilizes this 'crew' to damaged areas where they are likely to be needed," explains Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, director of research at the Stanford University Center on Stress and Health.

As a result, your brain and body get a boost. A quick surge of stress can stave off disease: Studies suggest that it strengthens the immune system, makes vaccinations more effective, and may even protect against certain types of cancer. Small amounts of stress hormones can also sharpen your memory. In 2009, University at Buffalo researchers found that when rats were forced to swim -- an activity that stresses them out -- they remembered their way through mazes far better than rats that chilled out instead.

The key, of course, is balance. Too little stress and you're bored and unmotivated; too much and you become not just cranky but sick. "It's important to pay attention to your stress thermometer," and to stay below the boiling point, explains life coach Ruth Klein, author of The De-Stress Diva's Guide to Life.

Do you crave food, even though you're not hungry? Is your heart racing? Are you snapping at the people you care about most? These are all signs that you've crossed over from the good side of stress to the bad, says life coach Ruth Klein. Click through the slideshow for four strategies to release the pressure.

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4 Ways To Release The Pressure

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