Stress is a universal phenomenon of living humans. It is a nonspecific reaction to demands imposed on us by life. These can be physical, emotional or spiritual. While stress may seem to be a negative thing, it is a hard-wired physiological reaction that allows us to survive and thrive as opposed to being eaten alive. The body’s stress response is a highly complex orchestration of hormonal, vascular, and neurological changes that allow us to respond quickly in fight, flight or protect modes.

In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Where the Buddha Meets Darwin,” the role of meditation and mindfulness is linked to evolutionary biology and the survival of our species. Worries and anxiety about a wandering toddler may be related to protecting our gene pool so it can be passed onto the next generation. Our feelings, moods and attitudes, in this light, are irrelevant to the greater good.

However, for most of us, concern about long-term stress is not an issue. We experience it uncomfortably in the short term. However, day to day stress must be alleviated in some way or it will have a negative impact on our long-term health and well-being.

Psychoneuroimmunology research shows the measurable and significant impact of pregnant mothers’ stress on the nervous system of unborn children. Children born of mothers who spend their pregnancies in a high stress state are exposed to a high level of corticotropin releasing hormone, CRH, which affects the ways their brains and bodies develop. These babies have lower birth weights, increased premature births, mental and motor developmental delays, behavioral disorders, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease like diabetes, and long term cognitive impairment.

Unrelieved stress affects every body system. It can lead to immune problems, infections, heart disease, cancer, hormone imbalance, migraines, irritable bowel and other gastrointestinal problems, mood disorders, sleep problems — the list goes on.

Admit it, none of us wakes up in the morning staying, “Gee, I hope I have a stressful day!” However it is a fact that a certain amount of stress can encourage us to be vigilant, strive to succeed, to push our own limits. So stress can also be good for us.

Imagine a bell shaped curve with an unlit light bulb on the left side, a brightly burning bulb at the top of an optimum stress curve, and a burned out bulb on the right side of the curve. Like plants, we need a certain amount of light, water, food, and stress. Too much or too little is not helpful and may even be fatal.

We all know of cases where too much stress pushed people over the top into a stroke, a heart attack or a foolish, self-destructive action. Those with no stress at all though, may become couch potatoes who never contribute substantially to their families or communities.

So if stress is an expected part of daily life, how can we best deal with it so it becomes our friend, not our enemy? We will explore several fun and easy stress management techniques in next week’s column.

In the meantime, if you feel stressed, just take three deep belly breaths, empty your mind of all distracting thoughts and repeat as needed.

Dr. Victor Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.