01/29/2015 11:12 am ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Increasing Your Ability to Cope with Stress Will Make You Healthier

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For the past 35 years as a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center I have been studying stress. My career has involved many NIH funded research grants, many peer reviewed publications, a book, and for the past decade helping people increase the quality of their health and longevity by teaching them how to increase their ability to cope with stress. I know I can help you. I will be providing advice and information in blogs that will be ongoing.

Stress results when something happens to you or you observe exceeds the ability of your brain to cope with the event. Not being able to cope with the event means that there is stressor-induced activation of areas of the brain we refer to as 'stress-reactive areas.' The primary brain areas (yes, they have names) are the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus and the locus coeruleus. When the stress reactive-areas are activated, they cause an elevation in the concentration of hormones (the major ones are cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine) in blood. It is the elevation of these hormones that is the reason that stress has a negative effect on your health. What I want to do today is show you how stress affects the mind and body.

Examples of negative effects of an elevation of stress hormones on the mind are:
• You have difficulty thinking clearly and focusing.
• You become depressed and have the 'blues.'
• Your ability to remember things may decrease at a younger age than would occur if you could cope with stress.

Examples of negative effects of an elevation of stress hormones on the body are:
• Your heart beats more rapidly.
• Blood pressure increases.
• There is an accelerated accumulation of cholesterol into the blood vessels of the heart with narrowing of the blood vessels.
• Blood platelets clump together and may plug up a blood vessel in the heart.
• The ability of the body to resist infectious disease decreases.
• The ability of the body to heal wounds decreases.
• Autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease may become more active.
• Diabetes is more difficult to manage.
• Weight is more difficult to manage because you tend to eat foods that are not healthy.

It is important to be aware that these are possible effects on health. Some people experience significant health alterations and some have little if any health changes. The reasons relate to how well each person uses stress coping skills (examples of coping skills that will be explained further in my subsequent blogs are not being lonely, being physically fit, having a sense of humor, using meditation or deep breathing), and early life abuse that sensitizes the brain to be more responsive to stress.

There is a trigger-point in each person's brain below which stress does not disturb the hormonal balance of the body. The trigger-point differs in each individual. In addition to the use of stress coping skills and early life abuse, the intensity and duration of the stress are important.

Thus, the effect of stress on mental and physical health is dependent on:
• Whether the event is perceived as stress.
• The use of coping skills that may be considered the anesthesia that reduces the response of the brain to stress.
• Early life events (abuse) that sensitize the brain to respond to stress.
• The duration and intensity of the stressor.

Learning to cope with stress, by using lifestyle behaviors and stress buffering techniques, will minimize activation of the stress-reactive brain areas. Understand that stress is not going away. Each of us encounters things we see, hear, or experience, often on a daily basis that our brain perceives as stress. If we want to reduce the negative effect of stress on our health, we have two choices. We can avoid stress or we can increase our coping skills and change the way our brain responds to stress.

Sometimes we can avoid stress. For example, if we know that someone is angry with us, we can avoid seeing them until they calm down. However, much of life's stress is unavoidable. Dealing with divorce, losing one's job, facing an angry employer, dealing with children that get into trouble, caring for a relative with a serious disease, preparing for an exam at school are all examples of stress that cannot be avoided.

When we cannot avoid stress, one needs to develop coping skills to minimize the activation of the stress reactive brain areas. Coping with stress means that you use behaviors and techniques to keep the stress reactive areas of the brain calm.

Over the past decade we have taken many groups on a journey that provides education regarding how stress affects health and taught them how to effectively use stress coping skills.

Representative comments are:
-- "I sleep better and can now reduce my reaction to stressful situations. This has also opened my eyes as to how detrimental stress is to our bodies and our ability to maintain a greater quality of life as we age."
-- "Sometimes our jobs do create stress within our life. Being able to recognize these stresses and manage them help us to be more productive in our jobs and in our home life."

The journey I will be taking you on will provide an understanding of how stress affects both mental and physical health and how to effectively use behaviors and techniques that will change the way your brain responds to stress. We will be discussing these coping mechanisms in subsequent blogs.

However, now I would like you to do the following: Put a big smile on your face -- a big, big smile. Hold it there. Now think of something sad while you have that big smile on your face. Was it easy to think of something sad while you had the big smile on your face?

Was a lesson learned just now? Keep that smile on your face as you go throughout your day and see how you feel.