Stress is an inescapable part of modern life. That's the bad news. The good news is that stress isn't altogether bad news. In metered doses, it can be helpful...it can even make you better at what you do, and help give you the competitive edge. It's the major-league, non-stop, never-let-up stress you have to watch out for. Because, man, it can kill you.
What is stress?Stress is an adaptive response. It's the body's reaction to an event that is seen as emotionally disturbing, disquieting, or threatening. When we perceive such an event, we experience what one stress researcher called the "fight or flight" response. To prepare for fighting or fleeing, the body increases its heart rate and blood pressure; more blood is then sent to your heart and muscles, and your respiration rate increases. This response was probably beneficial to our cavemen ancestors who had to fight off wild animals. But today, stress itself has become the "wild animal." Untamed and allowed to run rampant in our lives, it can destroy our health.
The modern male's response to psychological stress differs little from the way our primitive forebears reacted to dangerous animals or other sources of potential physical harm (i.e., with surges of adrenaline, a rise in blood pressure and heart rate, and a 4x increase in blood flow to the muscles needed to fight or run away.)
But today, there are few wild animals to contend with, unless you happen to work in a zoo or live out in the wilds somewhere. Our stress response is more likely triggered by overwhelming responsibilities at home or work, by loneliness, or by the fear of losing our jobs.
Not only is uncontrolled stress harmful to our bodies in and of itself, but it can also lead to unwise behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse, which place us at even greater risk, health wise. It can also jeopardize our relationships, by leading to emotional outbursts and, in some cases, physical violence.
What causes stress?Major causes of stress include illness, job changes, moving, separations and divorces, deaths in the family, and financial difficulties. But even joyous events, like marriage, the arrival of a baby, or entertaining guests, can be stressful.
Top 20 stressors in life
- Death of a spouse
- Marital separation
- Jail term
- Death of close family member
- Personal injury or illness
- Fired at work
- Marital reconciliation
- Change in health of family member
- Sex difficulties
- Gain of new family member
- Business readjustment
- Change in financial state
- Death of close friend
- Change to different line of work
- Change in number of arguments with spouse
- Mortgage or loan for a major purpose
Why too much stress can be harmfulWhen you're feeling overwhelmed -- or encounter a major stressor of some kind in your environment -- your adrenalin kicks in and your sympathetic nervous system takes over. Your body is suddenly prepared for action. But when there's no dinosaur to slay or damsel in distress to rescue, your body reacts with heart palpitations, sweating, increased stomach acidity, stomach spasm, skeletal muscle spasms -- and increased blood pressure.
This is OK up to a point, but if it goes on too long and your body doesn't have any "down time," you could be in for trouble. Researchers tell us that stress may play a role in the development of high blood pressure, though more studies are necessary to tighten up the connection.
Stress also appears associated with heart disease, even if a direct causal relationship has yet to be proven.
Stress/tension and hypertensionTension and hypertension are not the same thing. Hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure. You can have high blood pressure without feeling stressed or tense. However, continual stress may lead to permanently elevated blood pressure.
The positive side of stressStress is not bad in and of itself. It may help to make us more alert, energize us, or give us a motivational kick in the pants. For years, actors, entertainers, public speakers, and athletes have known how to turn stress into "high energy" performances. Properly harnessed, stress can indeed work to our advantage at times. But chronic, big-time stress can make us big-time losers...losers of health and wellness.
Aside from taxing the body, excess stress can also tax the mind and lead to poor health decisions, such as the abuse of alcohol or drugs or other self-destructive behaviors.
"Good" and "Bad" stress.What are the differences?
Good Stress is a balance of arousal and relaxation that helps you concentrate, focus, and achieve what you want.
Bad Stress is constant stress and constant arousal that may lead to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and worse.
How common a problem is excess stress?Stress is epidemic in American life. In nationwide polls, 89% of Americans reported that they often experience high levels of stress, and 59% claimed that they feel great stress at least once a week.
Sometimes, stress gets so bad that people "burn out" -- that is, they either lose the ability to function or function in an impaired manner. And while being under stress isn't always an accurate predictor of who will or won't burn out, it is certainly a contributing factor.
A five-year study of the American workforce conducted by the Families and Work Institute showed that 30% of employees often or very often feel burned out or stressed by their jobs, 27% feel emotionally drained from their work, and 42% feel used up at the end of the work day. Balancing work pressures and family responsibilities leaves many workers feeling burned out.
Stress and your immune systemThe fact that psychological stress can trigger or alter the course of illness has long been apparent. Emotions, obviously, can affect the autonomic nervous system and, secondarily, heart rate, sweating, and bowel peristalsis (wavelike movement resulting from the contraction and relaxation of muscles in the walls of the digestive tract). For years, such phenomena were observed and studied under the banner of "psychosomatic medicine."
Now, a whole field of research and study has blossomed to investigate the relationship between psychosocial events and the immune system. It's called psychoneuroimmunology. Its proponents think that stress is involved, in some way, in the suppression of the immune system, which protects us from disease.
If stress is associated with immunosuppression, then stress management techniques should be useful in preventing, or at least tempering, the impact of stress on health, so the thinking goes. Certainly, stressors in life may sap our resistance and put us at greater risk for disease.
Quick tips for managing stress
First, define your stressors
- Avoid hassles
- Control change
- Take a break
- Find help/access resources
To master stress, you must first clearly identify the situations in life that make you stressed and tense (your stressors). To identify these stressors, become more aware of your body in different situations. Ask yourself, "Does this person, place, or thing...
- Make my muscles tense?
- Make my heart pound?
- Make my hands cold and clammy?
- Give me a 'knot' in my stomach
- Give me a headache?
- Give me a backache?
- Make me sweat?
- Cause me to break out in a rash?"
Step two is making a concerted effort to avoid these stressors. If that's not realistically possible, take steps to lessen their effect on you (i.e., neutralize them). Learning to relax in the face of your stressors may be your most valuable weapon. Give yourself a break. Walk and talk more slowly. Give yourself time to meet deadlines and complete your work. Learning to relax takes a little practice. But it's well worth it, and soon you'll know exactly what to do to replace the stress response with the "relaxation response."
Things you can do to relax
Use these simple relaxation techniques to slow down, relax, and rejuvenate your mind, body, and spirit.
- Deep breathing
- Clearing your mind
- Progressive muscle relaxation
Stress and your heartThe role of stress in causing heart disease and heart attacks remains controversial. Most experts believe that while stress doesn't cause heart disease, it may contribute to the overall risk.
"Type A" personalities and heart diseaseIt has been hypothesized for years that if you are hostile and aggressive and find it difficult to relax, you may be at higher risk for coronary artery disease. Recent research has failed to confirm that personality directly causes coronary artery disease. Nonetheless, being a hostile personality type may increase your risk. This may be particularly true if you're a "hot reactor" -- that is, someone who exhibits extreme increases in heart rate and blood pressure in response to everyday stress.
While evidence to date does not suggest that stress management strategies can be the sole therapy to prevent or treat cardiovascular disease, some stress reduction techniques, when used regularly, can be a valuable adjunct to other behavioral, dietary, and medical interventions for reducing the risks of heart disease.
Other measures include weight control, avoidance of smoking, regular exercise, lower fat intake, and reduced sodium and alcohol consumption.
Taking control of stress through relaxation.If for no other reason than to make yourself feel better, it may be a good idea to lower your stress levels. Relaxation techniques can help, and there are a wide range of these techniques available.
What's important is finding one that works for you. The menu of choices includes meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, creative visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, stretching, and biofeedback. Good old regular exercise works well, too, and may be used separately or in conjunction with the preceding options.
You may also consider:
- Getting a pet. Interactions with pets are relaxing and may therefore aid in stress management.
- Getting a massage. Effective massage therapy can relax muscles, ease muscle spasms and pain, increase blood flow in the skin and muscles, relieve mental and emotional stress, and induce relaxation. And, it just feels good.
- Listening to tunes. Music can indeed soothe the savage beast and help minimize the stress response.
- Reaching out for help. If you have trouble managing stress on your own, remember...help is available. Don't be afraid to consult with your primary care physician or a qualified mental health professional.
- Writing about your troubles. While writing is no substitute for professional consultation, it can help you ventilate your feelings. A daily session with pen and paper, or at the computer keyboard, can serve as a good release for stress-inducing problems or as an adjunct to psychotherapy. Some people have important insights, or discover solutions to their problems, while writing.
- Laughing. Feelings and attitudes appear to play an important role in health. If you can maintain perspective and laugh at life's events, rather than letting them rain on your parade, you stand to gain health-wise.
Other Techniques For Banishing Stress From Your Life.
Maintain Good Social RelationshipsNurture your ties to family and friends. Give more attention to the people who nurture and support you.
Be realisticUnrealistic beliefs can add to your stress. Don't expect everyone to like you or share your opinion. Don't expect to be right all the time. Don't expect to be all things to all people. Moderate your expectations of yourself and others. Be willing to be human.
Also, don't expect absolute harmony in your relationships. Real life involves occasional conflict -- even between people who love each other. Expect occasional clashes and be willing to confront them. Working through disagreements is better than ignoring them and ultimately results in less stress.
Improve your communicationIf you're too aggressive or hostile with others, you may antagonize or alienate them, creating more problems for yourself. If you're too passive you'll feel that everyone is taking advantage of you -- or controlling you. Obviously, a balance between the two extremes is needed. Assertiveness training can help you express your needs without offending others or feeling ignored.
Make time for self-renewal/rejuvenationFind something in life to elevate your spirit. It can be music, dance, meditation, sports, prayer, painting, Tai Chi, hiking in the mountains, visiting the ocean, or anything else you enjoy that makes your spirit soar. Take time for avocation, recreation, and spiritual pursuits; revitalizing your self in this way will allow you to maintain proper balance and perspective in your life...and give you better control over stress.
ExerciseRegular physical exercise helps reduce anxiety and mild depression, while it raises self-esteem. It also primes your immune system, and plays a key role in the prevention of disease. Take note that physical exercise doesn't have to be a heavy-duty workout. Simple walking at a brisk pace for 20 to 30 minutes daily may be more than adequate to help you reap the benefits of exercise.
Define yourself clearly to othersWe are often pushed to take on far more than we can accomplish. We want to advance in our careers, yet the required sacrifices take away from our families, who feel cheated because we're not spending enough time with them. The answer may be to scale back a little...to think smaller...and give more to the people who matter most.
Much stress is the product of faulty expectations. When you can't live up to your own expectations for yourself -- or the expectations of others -- it causes stress, tension, and pressure. The solution is to get expectations back in line with reality, by doing a better job of communicating exactly what you can and cannot do, and by defining limits. Learn how to say "no," and be OK with it.
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