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Chronic Stress: Something to Worry About!

How to Stop Stress in Its Tracks
  -- By Ellen G. Goldman, Health and Wellness Coach
Stress. We feel it in our bodies, we talk about it with our friends, and we blame it for standing in the way of our happiness.  But do we do anything about it?  Most of us think that stress is an inevitable for people who live productive, fulfilling lives in the modern world. 
 
To some degree, that's true.  Each day we are pulled in a million different directions.  Our careers demand constant attention to flourish in a challenging economy.  Our family members need us and want us; our gadgets buzz and beep requesting our attention all day and night.  Bills need to be paid, appointments need to be made, and traffic jams put us behind schedule.  Somewhere in between all of this, we attempt to get to the gym or spend some time with friends having fun.  Even figuring out how to fit in life's pleasures can cause be stressful.
 
And that's just an ordinary day.  Add to that any major life event—a loved one falling ill, losing a job, kids going to college, elderly parents needing our help, weddings to be planned and paid for, moving, retirement, and on and on—and the stress piles up.
 
So is your life exhilarating, or just stressful and exhausting?  Well, that all depends on how you look at—and handle—both the small everyday events, and the major life-changing ones.  Most of us have an innate understanding that too much stress negatively impacts our health and well-being.  But do we really understand the true biology of stress or why it is imperative that we learn to reduce, eliminate or manage it? 
 
Once you understand the physiological effects stress has on every part of the body, you will be motivated to stop accepting it as a fact of life.  Let's learn to eliminate or reduce the stress we have control over, and manage that which we can't control.
 
Your Body's Stress Response
Fortunately, our incredible bodies are designed to respond to impending danger.  During high-intensity stress, hormonal changes cause your concentration to become highly focused, your reaction time to speed up and your strength to dramatically increase. How else could we explain the speed with which you respond when we see your child about to dart into oncoming traffic?  Or why, under the pressure of deadlines, you can become highly focused and motivated to get the work done.
 
If you lived in the days of the cavemen, the stress response literally might have saved your life.  Changes occurring in the body gave our ancestors the strength to fight a predator, or flee and escape harmful situations.  That's the famous "fight or flight response" and explains the expression, "that which doesn't kill us makes us that much stronger."  
 
These heightened biological reactions work in our favor—for the short term.  For the caveman, once the danger was over, the system returned to normal levels of functioning, and experienced long periods of little or no stress at all.  Stress was short-lived and fleeting.  In modern times, for many of us, we are drowning in constant waves of these stress-induced biological changes, with little or no return to baseline levels in between.  That's when a normal stress response can begin to make us sick.
 
Too much ongoing stress (with little or no breaks in the cycle) can lead to a host of medical problems such as elevated blood pressure, heart attacks and compromised immune systems.  That can lead to a greater incidence of colds, flu, infections, and even cancer.  Long-term exposure to stress has been proven to contribute to infertility, and even speed up the aging process. The emotional effects of stress can cause overeating which might lead to obesity and the host of diseases that accompany it. 
 
So why is it that stress, which seems to be something only in our minds, can have such an impact on our bodies?  What is going on that causes almost every cell and organ to suffer from chronic stress?  To put it simply, the body doesn't recognize the difference between physical threats or psychological threats, and it responds to both as life or death situations.
 
When you are under stress, your brain produces a series of chemicals that travel through your blood, wreaking havoc on almost every system in our body.  Dr. Michael Roizen and Dr. Mehmet Oz described this stress circuit beautifully in their best-selling book, You: Staying Young.  They state:
 
"Your stress circuit is the interaction between your nervous system and your stress hormones.  This hormonal system is called the HPA axis.  The hormones cycle through three glands in a feedback loop.  When faced with a stressor, the hypothalamus at the base of our brain releases CRH (corticotrophin-releasing hormone), which then dances around the pituitary gland, stimulating another hormone called ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) into our blood stream.  ACTH signals the adrenal gland to release cortisol and norepinephrine (also known as adrenaline, the fight or flight chemical).  Adrenaline increases your blood pressure and heart rate, while cortisol releases sugar in the form of glucose to fuel your muscles and mind.  Then, cortisol travels back to the hypothalamus to stop the production of CRH once the stress is over, and the body returns to normal.  But only if the stress stops as well."
 
It is very clear that the "mind-body" connection not only exists, but also strongly affects our health and well-being.  Although occasional stress won't hurt us too much, and might even helps us at times, ongoing exposure clearly causes major damage to our health, moods, relationships, productivity and quality of life.  Wouldn't you agree it's worth taking the time to learn how to manage it?
 
Identifying Causes of Stress
Before you can impact the amount and intensity of stress in your everyday life, it's important to identify where it's coming from.  We have gotten so used to the hectic, complicated modern world we live in that feeling "stressed out" feels normal.  Until we either reach our breaking point or get sick, we hardly notice it. 
 
Most of us have our personal ways of reacting to stress.  Some cry, others overeat, some become irritable and cranky, and many get depressed.  I react to stress physically; my stomach gets upset, my muscles tighten and ache, and I might end up with a throbbing headache. 

If you were to keep a stress log for a few days, you would quickly begin to see patterns of the things that cause your stress, and how you react to it.  My suggestion: Carry a small notebook with you, and write down anything that occurs that causes you stress for an entire week.  Don't plan to do anything immediately, just educate yourself as to the primary stressors in your life.  And although this may sound like a nuisance, until you get a clear picture of where the stress is coming from, it will be challenging to know how to shift toward a less stressful lifestyle.
 
Since ongoing stress causes so much damage to our bodies, it is imperative that we proactively work towards change.  Our health depends on it.  An occasional visit to a massage therapist might relax us temporarily, but will do little to reduce or eliminate the incidences that are causing the stress to begin with.  Stress management techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and exercise are wonderful, and I'm all for them.  But lasting change occurs only when you get to the root of the problem to begin with.
 
If you look at your personal list of stressors, it will become clear that some of the things on your list are things you can do something about, others are not. When reviewing the things that cause you anxiety and stress, ask yourself this very important question.
 
"Is this within my circle of influence?"
 
If you are experiencing stress every morning because you can't find your keys, and then you sit in traffic to get to your job on time, you might be able to change your routine.  Perhaps a hook by the garage door will solve the problem of missing keys.  If you left an hour early and had breakfast at a local coffee shop or at your desk before the workday begins, you could avoid the traffic and have a new, calmer morning routine.  It's all a matter of taking stock, analyzing the situation, and determining if it's important enough to you to experiment with new ideas and possibilities.
 
But what happens when the stressor is something you absolutely cannot change?  Then, the only thing you can control is your reaction to that stressor. If someone you love is ill, and you feel overwhelmed as his or her caretaker, evaluate what is and is not within your circle of influence.  You cannot change the fact that your love one is ill, but you can ask yourself, "What can I do to within reason to ease this discomfort?"  If you can't be by their side 24/7, can you bring in visiting nurse services? Can you rotate visits with family members? Can you delegate some of your work in order to free up time for visits? What can you do for yourself to alleviate some of the tension and anxiety you are feeling? 

Lying awake worrying at night will not change anything. But knowing you have done everything possible may lead you toward acceptance and some peace. Sometimes we really need to recognize that this problem is outside of our circle of influence; we have done all we possibly can; and we must trust that somehow things will work out or, with time, will pass.
 
Circumstances and challenges will always come up that will increase your stress level and test your ability to cope and enjoy life to its fullest. At the worst times, they may even break you emotionally, mentally or spiritually.  Now you must make the conscious decision that you will create your environment to produce calm and healthy days, rather than out of control, stress-inducing ones.  When you are able to build the reserves to handle life's crises—small and large—you can still have the energy and stamina for the people and things you love, which will offer you a truly fulfilled life.
 
Smart Strategies to Deal with Stress
Here are a dozen tips that will help reduce the frequency and intensity of your stress, and therefore dramatically improve your ability to handle stress when occurs.
  1. Elevate self-care to its highest priority at all times.   A well-rested, nourished and fit body sees the world through calmer glasses, no matter what's going on.  When life does get hectic and stressful, or a crisis occurs, resist the urge to think you don't have time to take care of yourself.  The best way to cope and protect your body against stress is to take exceptional care of yourself.
     
  2. Identify the source of your stress.  Fix the simple stuff. Work on the tough stuff.  I encourage you to keep a stress diary for a week or two, and then ask yourself some important questions.
  1. Make an appointment for some "me" time every day.  Many will turn to some pretty self-sabotaging methods to handle stress, such as overeating, oversleeping, drinking to intoxication, numbing by watching too much TV, or just procrastinating.  Take a short break to nourish your spirit instead by trying meditation, taking a walk outside or reading a good book.  Figure out what works for you and schedule it into your day.
  1. Learn the skills of time management and practice them until they become habits.   Poor time-management skills are a huge cause of stress for so many people.  There are wonderful books and professionals who can help you in this arena.  If your stress diary clearly shows that you are not managing your time well, commit to working on that area for change.
  1. Stop multi-tasking on important things.  Running around trying to do a hundred things at once puts our bodies into fight-or-flight mode.  Rather than accomplishing what we need to do, we end up making mistakes, producing sloppy work, or forgetting things that inevitably leave us feeling more stressed.  Focus on one task at a time, get it done, and move on.
  1. Use technology to your advantage, not your detriment.  Being accessible 24/7 may seem convenient or time-saving, but for many, it can become highly stressful.  Set a specific time to read and answer emails rather than responding to them all day and all evening.  Let the voicemail pick up calls while you are working.  Shut your blackberry off before entering your home in the evening.  You might even benefit from a technology-free day once a week.
  1. Nurture your relationships.  They are the backbone of our happiness.  When life is busy, and we are stressed, we often neglect those we care about the most.  Plan a date night with your partner, have lunch with a friend, or call someone who makes you laugh.
  1. Take a mini-vacation.  Don't wait for the once a year vacation to unwind and relax.  An afternoon away, one night out of town, or even just an hour escape for a massage will refresh and rejuvenate your body, mind and spirit, allowing you to face the world with a more buoyant attitude.
  1. Surround yourself with positive people.  Wherever possible, spend time with people who are optimistic and energizing, not those who are filled with negativity and gloom.
 
  1. Stay in the present moment.  When we ruminate on the past, it usually makes us feel sad or angry.  When we focus on the future, it usually causes us worry and concern.  Reduce stress by taking enjoyment of whatever is happening in the now.
     
  2.  Concentrate your energies on the things you can control and impact, and let the rest go. 
  1. Try to find the humor in life's ironies.  Don't take yourself so seriously.
Try some or all of the above tips, and soon you'll see how stress reduction was just what you needed to improve your everyday life.
 
Sources
Elkin Ph.D., Allen. Stress Management for Dummies.  1999. New York: Wiley Publishing, Inc.
 
Roizen M.D., Michael F., and Mehmet Oz, M.D. You: Staying Young. 2007. New York: Simon & Schuster.
 
Smith, Melinda, M.A., Robert Segal, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. "Understanding Stress," accessed November 2011.