Make stress work for you

We all know what it feels like to be frazzled, and it's not fun. But I recently learned something interesting, albeit counterintuitive, about stress: Some events that make us want to tear our hair out can actually be beneficial to our bodies. You see, when stress comes in short blasts (such as giving a work presentation), our bodies instantly go on the defense, causing our cells to emit healing properties and our immune system to rev up for a fight. This physiological chain reaction can actually help you live longer.

But here's the catch: In order to reap the benefits of stress, you need to chase your meltdowns with some downtime. Your body can't start repairing itself until you begin to relax. And at the same time, you have to strike the right balance between having too much stress and too little (yes, there is such a thing). Here are five ways to help you find your stress sweet spot:

1. Keep a stress calendar

You know when you're tense, but it's hard to remember how long you've been knotted up. Experts say it's important to keep track of how your tension levels vary over time, so every day, rate your stress level on a scale from 1 to 10. If you write down a 5 or above for more than two days in a row, try some relief tactics (like games).

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2. Put yourself out there

Mental, physical, or psychological challenges generate the good kind of stress. So sign yourself up for something you've always wanted to do but have been afraid to try: rock climbing, Mandarin classes, an open-mike night at your local bar. But be sure to switch things up periodically; once an activity becomes routine, it no longer stimulates you.

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3. Focus on your accomplishments

When it comes to your tension levels, some weeks are doozies and there's nothing you can do about it. One way to turn prolonged stress into beneficial stress is to make a look-what-I-did-today list in addition to a to-do list. Recognizing what you've accomplished sends a signal to your brain that it's OK to relax, and this helps restore your balance.

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4. Step out of your safety zone

Good stress can come in many surprising forms, like visiting a sauna or eating food made with spices you don't usually eat. Anytime your body experiences a challenge, it revs up its internal repair system.

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5. Work up a sweat

Exercise provides the same health perks as a shot of stress (and it can help relieve extra anxiety). A tough workout increases the production of free radicals and other bad chemicals, but only temporarily: Your body starts to fix the damage as soon as you hop off the treadmill.

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