stress is no problem

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eye-opening discoveries on health and fitness

I EXPECT IT AND DEAL WITH IT

For fun, my family and I took one of those online tests that predicts how long you're going to live. It involved about 40 questions covering everything from hometown air quality to diet to cholesterol levels to how you handle stress.

My 10-year-old son Nicky's score was 92.7 years, and my 9-year-old son, Joey, scored even higher at 97.8 years. I went next and got a ridiculous score of 114.7! But my brother Lorin's score was a disappointing 69.9. After trying to coaxthe rest of us to take up smoking and drinking to even the score, Lorin decided to compare tests to see what he's been doing wrong.

Except for the 10 years he deducts for being a male, the difference in our scores didn't make sense at first. Lorin and I live in the same city, share the same lineage and are both divorced. He exercises as much as I do (maybe even more). And we have similar diets. However, the more we compared, the more we found differences. His blood pressure is 139 over 89; mine is 90 over 60. His total cholesterol is 240 with a 200 LDL ("bad" cholesterol) level, while my total cholesterol is only 137 with a 61 LDL.

Stress Test
The most telling difference was how Lorin answered one particular question: "How do you handle stress?" He chose answer (D) — "Not very well. Stress eats away at me and I have a difficult time shaking it off." By contrast, I chose (A) — "No problem. Life is full of stress. I expect it. I prepare for it and deal with it!"

Stress could be the main factor that's taking its toll on Lorin's health in a way that overrides his healthy habits. I want to help him, but telling someone to stop being stressed is about as helpful as telling a person to stop being nervous.

Health Concerns
Stress is an important dragon to slay — or at least tame — in your life. Its ill effects have been known for years. Researchers can influence disease and lifespan in laboratory rodents simply by adjusting stress in their environment. In humans, stress is linked to heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. About 80 percent of all doctors' office visits are for stress-related complaints. And the stress itself isn't the only risk to health. Often when a person can't get past stress, she will turn to overeating, drinking or smoking, which can become a greater problem than the stress itself.

Lorin and I talked about it. "I know it's unhealthy to carry around stress, but it's difficult to will myself to stop," he said. "I take it personally whenever someone pulls a selfish maneuver in traffic or is loud on a cell phone. And I have a hard time getting over it."

Causes of Stress
I suggested that it might have a lot to do with how we grew up. I was the third of six, barely noticed in the litter, while Lorin was the baby, who always got what he wanted.

A lot of it has to do with expectations too. I drive in LA every day, and I expect traffic to be stressful. If you only allow yourself 15 minutes to reach your destination, and the 405 is a parking lot, you're going to be stressed. But I expect the 405 to be jammed, so I'm prepared and I've allowed myself the extra time.

I also think stress is related to control. When you're in charge of your life, you tend to not care about losing control of things that don't really matter like traffic jams. Lorin has been going through a lengthy divorce for the past 4 years, and the loss of control in that aspect of his life has, no doubt, added to his stress.

I try to keep the control factor in mind when I'm approaching something important like an audition. I know that the key is preparation. The more prepared I am, the more I'll be in control, less nervous, less stressed and more focused.

I often hear people talking about job stress. It's important to point out that there are two types of work-related stress. There's the kind that comes from challenges you impose on yourself; this is good stress. And then there's the stress caused by work that someone else, like your boss, has imposed, and you're doing it mostly to pay your bills. That kind of stress is bad. The difference is that you're in charge of the workload in the first type, and someone else is in charge in the second. The second kind of stress takes a toll on your health; the first invigorates you.

And this goes back to the point about control. Being in control of your life and having realistic expectations about your day-to-day challenges are the keys to stress management, which is perhaps the most important ingredient to living a happy, healthy and rewarding life.

Actress and best-selling author Marilu Henner offers classes and community at www.marilu.com.

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By Marilu Henner

Marilu Henner is a well-known actress, lecturer and NY Times bestselling author of Marilu Henner's Total Health Makeover, The 30-Day Total Health Makeover, I Refuse to Raise a Brat, Healthy Life Kitchen, Healthy Kids, Healthy Holidays, and Party Hearty. To find out more about her program, check out her Web site at www.marilu.com.

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