By: M. Affeld
We live in a chaos filled world with commitments, family and professional pressures, personal challenges and seemingly overwhelming obstacles. Most days we manage. We think, if I can just get through next Thursday, next month or make it through the winter gray days I can get my life together. But time passes, the days race by and suddenly your life is rushing up at you. When the burden feels too heavy, we feel depleted and unable to meet the many demands placed upon us and we experience stress. In moderation, stress is actually a good thing. Stress motivates us to stay focused and alert and increases our productivity. One type of stress, eustress, is actually a necessary part of a balanced, meaningful life. Eustress is the type of stress we experience when falling in love, riding a roller coaster or participating in a risky activity or extreme sport. Eustress adds spice and flavor to our experiences, making us feel vital and alive. Problems arise when life’s demands exceed our limitations and negates our ability to cope. This type of stress is called distress and can become an ominous threat to both our emotional and physical well-being. Stress impacts not only our bodies, but our thoughts, emotions, relationships and behavior. When we feel threatened, whether for our personal safety or our emotional equilibrium, our bodies rapidly respond – we are ready for “flight or fight”. Stress is both a physiological and psychological reaction to events that disturb our personal sense of balance. Alarming experiences, either real or imagined, can trigger a stress reaction. When danger is sensed, the body’s defenses activate automatically with a wave of over 1400 reactions including the dumping of a huge variety of stress hormones, including adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine, into our systems. These chemicals race through our bloodstream, readying us to quickly react to the perceived danger. We have all experienced a response to stress: rapid pounding or fluttering heartbeat, shallow breathing, blood pressure soars, muscles tensing up with anxiety and all our senses on full alert. It isn’t pleasant and is often terrifying. We feel out of control, spiraling downward, bracing for what can only be a dreadful crash. This primal “flight or fight” response is experienced by everyone who encounters stress although the threshold that puts us in distress varies from person to person; what bothers me may not bother you, what frightens me, you may meet with confidence and assurance. For primitive man this response was life saving in that it enhanced his ability to react to danger and physical challenges. In response to stress, heart rate and blood pressure escalate to increase the flow of blood to the brain to improve decision making, clotting occurs more rapidly to prevent blood loss and blood sugar rises to furnish additional fuel for energy. These and many more automatic changes in our bodies persist as long as the threat continues. When the danger passes our bodies return to normal. Modern day stress tends to be insidious, more persistent and pervasive that our ancestors experienced. Contemporary stress most often originates from psychological rather than physical threats; however, our bodies do not recognize the difference. Unfortunately, our bodies respond with the same “flight or fight” response to any situation that upsets our personal balance. If we have a bad day at work, problems in our personal relationships or we are stuck in traffic, we react. Physical responses that are meant to support and protect us, are instead, potentially damaging and injurious to our health and well-being. If you live a fast paced life with a lot of worries, obligations and responsibilities, it is likely that you are running on stress most of the time – escalating into emergency mode with every looming business deadline, family crisis or bill that is due. Repeated or extended activation of the “flight or fight” response is especially dangerous as the more it is activated, the more difficult it is to shut off. Instead of leveling off once a crisis is over, heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones remain at an elevated level. Continuous or prolonged exposure to stress increases our risk of memory problems, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, heart disease, stroke, infection or reduced immune function as well as obesity and stomach ulcers. Because of the extensive damage stress can cause, it is imperative that we learn how to handle stress in a more positive manner and reduce its corrosive impact on our health. The symptoms of stress often mimic other medical problems. Lack of energy, decreased productivity at work, fatigue, abdominal discomfort, severe headaches, back ache or neck pain as well as chest pain, breathlessness, heart palpitations and cold, clammy skin can all be symptoms of stress. Stress can severely affect our health and well-being and we may not even realize it until the damage is done. If we wish to be pro-active in the pursuit of optimum health, it is important that we understand stress, recognize the symptoms and then take affirmative steps to manage the predictable stress reaction triggers in our daily lives. There are a number of ways to manage and reduce stress. First, try to find a supportive physician. Share with your doctor the emotions you are experiencing and the physical symptoms your body exhibits when you are exposed to stress. This is an important step in getting the help you need. Cognitive therapy, a short-term type of psychotherapy based on the belief that we can change how we feel by changing the way we think about things, is often quite effective. Stress reduction techniques, such as meditation and yoga, can be beneficial. Talking with family, friends or joining a support group can be emotional lifesavers and help offset our feelings of social isolation. A burden shared is lighter than one carried alone. It is imperative to our heath and well-being that we make dealing with stress a priority. When stressed, decompress – it is helpful to withdraw from the situation, evaluate your feeling from a distance and gain perspective. Try to breathe deeply, take a walk, re-focus and attempt to think of something else. This too will pass.