Stress may be the root of all your problems. Photo: Corbis

Stop procrastinating. Be nicer to your mother-in-law. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

These New Years Resolutions are not only unoriginal and nearly impossible to keep (um, it's your mother-in-law...), but they also won't do much to really make your life happier and healthier.

What will? Relieving stress. If you dig a little deeper to get to the true source of the bulk of the problems we resolve to solve come Jan 1st -- like procrastinating, impatience, weight gain, etc -- it's usually stress.

We caught up with Stephanie McClellan, MD, and Beth Hamilton, MD, the authors of So Stressed, The Ultimate Stress-Relief Plan for Women, to learn more about what's arguably the biggest problem in our lives. We're tackling a new stress-related topic each week in January, so keep checking in for the latest info.

Let's start with a quick tutorial on stress. Hamilton and McClellan say that, surprisingly, it's not all bad. "Stress is survival -- the brain tells the body that there's something wrong, that it's being threatened," they explain.

But the duration is what counts. In the short term, stress can be good, because it makes your brain become capable of super-focusing. Once the stress is over, the body goes back to normal and is able to restore and repair itself. The bad news comes into play when you're in a constant state of stress; all of the body's energy is used to deal with threat, putting it in alarm mode. Normal body functions aren't given the right attention, so you're going to face some unpleasant side effects. The key is balance, according to Hamilton and McClellan. "It's good to be awake for a little while, but not for 24 hours a day."

Hamilton and McClellan came up with cute and catchy names -- Larks and Owls -- to categorize people's response in terms of natural spikes and dips in cortisol (aka the stress hormone). They say you're predisposed to be one or other, but there are ways to help get your rhythm back into balance. Larks experience a significant peak and drop in cortisol; it's at high levels in the AM, which means they're alert and awake in the morning. They wake up ready to go, and need to get to bed early. Owls have cortisol levels that go up gradually, more like a hill than a peak and a drop. They're the ones who can pull all-nighters and then need to hit the snooze button in the morning.

Stressing is a Hoot: "Owl" personalities tend to stay up all night. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons


Who knew that stress comes in many flavors? In the course of their exhaustive research, Hamilton and McClellan have identified and named four different types. Although they say your stress response is kind of built into your body physiologically, genetics and habits (do you smoke, exercise, eat healthy foods, etc?) play a part, as does the fact that you may react in different ways in different circumstances.

But let's generalize here: Which type are you?

Hyper S Type
You're the epitome of the phrase "fight or flight." Your body experiences serious spikes in cortisol, which means you're good at getting stuff done, but it can also make you nervous, fidgety and forgetful. Add insomnia, and the fact that the cortisol can make you gain weight in your abdomen, and you've got the picture.

Hypo S Type
You're anxious and tired and your body just aches all the time. Low cortisol levels can lead to messed-up immune system issues like allergies, asthma, eczema and chronic fatigue syndrome. Basically, if anything stressful is going on, your biggest wish is to hide out under the covers until it all goes away.

Hypo P Type

This type is totally rare, but let's go over it anyway. Your low cortisol levels create a serious imbalance in your body, making you feel detached, and helpless and passive when faced with anything difficult. You can't express your feelings, and everything is blah, dull and gray.

Hyper P Type
You go at full speed until you crash. Stress causes elevated cortisol, which makes you a great multitasker and a high achiever, but it also means you're prone to meltdowns once the stressful situation has passed (think a weekend on the couch, not talking to anyone, after a work project is finished). This type is very common in women, and comes with side effects like IBS and PMS.

Next week Hamilton and McClellan dish on quick and simple tips for relieving your stress. Stay tuned!