Chuck Currie, 35, knows plenty about managing stress. From serving sandwiches at Baloney Joe's soup kitchen to running operations for the Goose Hollow Family Shelter in Portland, Ore., Currie worked with the homeless, one of the nation's most stressed populations, for 17 years. He witnessed people suffering from disabling health conditions and teenagers dying from AIDS.

Two years ago when Currie moved to St. Louis, changed his career path and started a Master of Divinity program, he experienced a surge in his own stress. Help didn't come easily. "Moving, changing careers and entering seminary were all stressful things that happened in quick succession," he says. At the same time, Currie began experiencing swollen and painful joints in his hands and feet. At times his symptoms were so severe he couldn't get out of bed; twice the flares sent him to the emergency room. Currie, who has psoriasis, had developed psoriatic arthritis, an inflammatory joint condition occurring in roughly 23 percent of people with psoriasis.

As Currie experienced, stress packs a powerful wallop for people with autoimmune diseases, because some of the biological pathways that ignite the stress response are the same pathways involved in immune-system malfunctions. For people with arthritis and other inflammatory diseases, stress prompts the release of chemicals in the brain and body that can trigger flares, inflammation and pain. To make matters worse, some of those chemicals, like cortisol, increase the risk of developing other chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, anxiety and depression, which can often create more stress. Managing your health after this cycle takes hold can seem like jumping for a helium-filled balloon that's floating out of reach. Luckily, what goes up can come down, and managing stress through reduction techniques can help restore your system's balance and protect your overall health.

Chemical Messengers to Blame

What exactly is stress? Hans Selye, MD, known as the "Father of Stress," defined stress as our response to any demand or stressor. Traffic jams. Tiffs with family members. Long waits at the post office. Many people experience stressors like these every day. If you're living with arthritis, you know a chronic condition can heap additional stressors on the pile. Stiff joints can slow you down in the early morning, making you late for work. A favorite pastime like needlepoint can go from relaxing to aggravating. Joint pain can keep you up at night, making you feel sluggish and cranky the next day. The potential result? Stress overload.

When we're sailing through life without any hurdles, our body's organs and the chemicals they produce are balanced. When we experience a stressor – for example, when our car fishtails on a slick highway – our bodies respond by activating chemical messengers, says George P. Chrousos, MD, chief of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Pediatric and Reproductive Endocrinology Branch, National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md. The chemical message starts in the hypothalamus, the master gland in the brain, which spits out a hormone that zings over to the pituitary gland, which shoots out another hormone that signals the adrenal glands to release stress hormones, including epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradenaline) and cortisol.