Stress: it's got a lot of faces. It can make you feel weak at the knees (and more). It can also, in the right circumstances, be a positive force or motivator.

I'll gladly take the motivation that stress can bring, like when the stress of a cluttered desk drove me to jump out of bed the moment my alarm went off, and with my mug of coffee my talisman, I was able to tackle a job that had been plaguing me for months. 

But I won't take the anxiety and subsequent problems stress can bring when, instead of a being a stimulus, it ushers in unwanted problems.

Stress is nothing new, nor is it a modern-day phenomenon. It's the body's automatic response to danger and other menaces, dating back to our ancient ancestors as a way to cope with predators and other everyday threats.

Our way of feeling danger (or annoyance at being stuck in traffic or facing a tight deadline at work) is to perhaps feel sweaty palms or a pounding heart. In response come the hidden tolls of stress on your blood pressure and levels of cortisol (a hormone your body releases in response to stress. It increases sugar, or glucose levels in the bloodstream, and can also alter immune system responses – not a good thing).

Without even realizing it, stress symptoms may be affecting your health with some common ailments you might blame on something else.

Sure, stress can affect your body but your thoughts, feelings and behaviors as well.  From there, it's a contributor to health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The first step: Learn how to recognize the common symptoms of stress.

Your body. You might mistakenly think these are caused by illness, but stress might be to blame for:

  • Headaches
  • Chest pain
  • Muscle aches or tension
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep Problems
  • Stomach upset
  • Change in sex drive

Your mind. PMS..perimenopause…menopause…post-menopause. Right? Not always. Stress can cause:

  • Depression
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty with focus
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Sadness

Your behavior.   Maybe it's your  “addictive” personality; maybe it's your lack of “willpower.” But stress could be the culprit in:

  • Smoking
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Overeating
  • Angry outbursts
  • Extreme dieting
  • Social withdrawal

The second step: Learn to Cope

Yes, everyone copes differently. But there are some tried-and-true strategies that can help you respond to life stressors and challenges in a healthy way:

Eat a Healthy Diet

Be sure to include enough protein, whole grains, dairy, fruit and veggies. Certain foods, like berries, are rich in Vitamin C, which has been shown helpful in combatting stress. And cashews are an especially rich source of zinc, which, if your levels are low, can be linked to anxiety and depression.

Commit to Exercise

The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans says you need to do two types of physical activity each week to improve your health, including aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise. At the very least, they say, adults need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking) every week, and muscle-strengthening activities two or more days each week.

Get Enough Sleep

Most adults need between seven to eight hours a night. According to the American Psychological Association's 2012 Stress in America survey, stress keeps more than 40 percent of adults awake at night. Cut out caffeine after 3PM, remove distractions like televisions or computers from your bedroom and try to go to sleep at about the same time each evening.

Foster Friendships

It's undeniable that good friends boost your happiness and reduce your stress. You don't need a lot – but a few of the right kinds.

Try Yoga and Relaxation Exercises

They not only help reduce stress, but research shows that they can boost your immune function.

Count. To ten.

Taking time out can help you regroup and reconsider.

Sip Tea.

All kinds can be soothing, but chamomile might be one of the best soothers: a study from the University of Pennsylvania which tested chamomile supplements on 57 people with generalized anxiety disorder found it led to a significant drop in symptoms.

And if all else fails…

Ask For Help.

If stress continues despite your efforts, reach out to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional. Together, you can identify situations or behaviors that are contributing to your stress and develop an action plan for changing them.

Read this next: Choosing Gratitude

Sheryl Kraft’s work has appeared in various print and online publications including AARP, Prevention, WebMD, Woman’s Day, Everyday Health, Grandparents.com, HealthyWomen.org, Senior Planet, JAMA, Weight Watchers, Bottom Line/Health, Bottom Line/Women’s Health, Caring Today, Westchester Magazine and more. She lives in her empty nest with her husband, Alan, and enjoys weekly Sunday visits from her two hungry 26 and 28-year-old sons (who also occasionally bring a load of laundry). When she's not working, Sheryl enjoys exercising, reading, walking and biking the neighborhood, seeing Broadway shows and spending time with friends. Visit Sheryl's website at www.sherylkraft.com or her two blogs, MySoCalledMidlilfe and Midlife Matters.