When did you last feel stressed? Your answer is likely to be very recently -- you might even be feeling stressed this very minute. And you are not alone.
In a recent survey, 51pc of Irish people reported feeling more stressed than the previous year, with women reporting higher stress levels than men.
Stress as we term it today started as the 'fight-or-flight' response when early man confronted life-threatening situations, and it was vital to our survival.
While modern man no longer has to deal with the dangers of hunting for his food or outrunning sabre-toothed tigers, we have our own modern stressors -- problems at work, in our personal relationships, financial concerns, traffic jams, the kids arguing, you name it -- and though hardly life threatening, they can trigger the same fight/flight response.
When we are exposed to a stressor a number of things occur. Chiefly, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol (known as the 'stress hormone'), energy levels and heart rate increase and our muscles tense in preparation to deal with that stressor.
In the normal course of events the 'danger' passes, our relaxation response kicks in and our body returns to its pre-stress state. However, in our high-pressure culture, for many people the body's stress response is nearly constantly switched to 'on'
This long-term activation of the stress response system is known as 'chronic stress' and it is associated with a host of health problems from headaches, insomnia and high-blood pressure to chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. Chronic stress also affects the body's balance of dopamine and serotonin, which, over time, can lead to anxiety and depression.
And the bad news does not end there. Chronic stress not only messes with your head, it also messes with your waistline. Cortisol signals the body to store fat (your body thinks it is an 'emergency situation' and may need it) specifically in the tummy area, so continually raised cortisol levels mean a bigger waistline over time. Stressed people also tend to reach for high-sugar, 'comfort foods' -- so a double-weight- gain whammy follows.
Managing stress, then, is paramount to maximising optimal mental and physical health. But how best to break the stress cycle, and to control our experience of it?
Regular exercise is key in the management of stress, helping to fight it on a number of fronts. Exercise promotes the production of neuro- hormones that are associated with elevated mood. This produces a calming effect and feeling of empowerment, which will help you to deal with any current or future stressors.
Stress creates a physical tension in the body and exercising helps to release that tension -- creating a more relaxed body and ultimately a more relaxed mind.
On a practical level, physical movement itself is a great distraction from your woes. Stepping away from our worries can provide a calm and perspective we might not otherwise get by focusing too closely upon them.
It seems that exercising can make you more resistant to stress in the first place. In lab studies, scientists put animals on a six-week aerobic programme, they then compared their brain cells with those of a group that remained sedentary.
Whatever you do, don't think of exercise as just one more thing on your to-do list. Find an activity you can enjoy and stick to, whether it's weight training, yoga, or a meditative meander down to your local park.
Any form of regular physical activity can help you unwind and can become an important part of your approach to easing stress. Diet too can play a great part in the fight against stress.
Some foods have been found to have a calming effect on a stressed system. Think natural. The best stress fighting foods are made by Mother Nature, not by Ben & Jerry's.