Stress is a word used so commonly to describe uncomfortable situations it’s hard to know the exactly what it means. The concise oxford dictionary defines stress as “a disease resulting from continuous mental stress.” Most people think of stress as an unpleasant situation or distress.But times are different we are moving at a much faster pace and stress has transformed into a whole new kind disease of monster proportions – one I call SuperStress. This silent and deadly transformation of stress evolved when we acquiesced to answering emails within a minutes of their receipt and felt obligated to consider practically sleeping with our PDAs , cell phones and blackberries to make sure that we were “ available”, even on our vacations . In cooperation with our new values and compounding the problem is the presence in airports, banks, elevators and even in taxis of television screens streaming news reports which tell us of the latest crises around the world—“keeping us informed “ so we don’t have to chase every disaster 24/7 – it can chase us. Great—or is it?
When we feel stressed our body reacts by sending signals via the limbic system, a special area of the brain designed to trigger a rapid physiological response, to flee. Stress experts believe that this response is an evolutionary adaptation whose purpose enabled victims of dangerous predators to run, escape or flee.
So, when danger is perceived, real or not, the “fight or flight” response triggers neurohormones from the limbic system of the brain to be released into our blood stream and in turn signals the adrenal glands to secrete another host of hormones known as catecholemines: epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. All of these molecules mobilize energy in the body with the intent of fleeing. For example, if I hear that I have just lost my job my body goes into a fight or flight response just as much as if a mastodon or tiger were chasing me. In this situation what follows from the adrenal surge is a body response that reduces digestive processes to save energy, enhance our immune system to protect us from potential wounding in battle and massive releases of blood sugar (vital energy for mobility).
In a short term emergency the changes made by SuperStress do very little to harm the body – we use up more vitamins and calories but we can recover from the damage. The problem comes when this response is triggered over and over with no time for rest. The relentless wear and tear of mobilizing for danger takes a different course – digestion gets out of whack, blood sugar surges begin to push the body into a near diabetic like state and immunity instead of being strong and robust becomes weakened and myriad of medical conditions start emerging in the chronically stressed individual
Here are the fifty most common signs of stress identified by the American Institute of Stress:
These are symptoms described by many of my patients. I wish I could say that the frequency is dwindling but a recent survey by the American Psychological Association in 2007 known as the “Stress in America Report” verifies that one third of Americans are suffering from extreme stress and the prevalence of stress is now up to 79% ( up from 59% in 2006). I could write page upon page about why and how the body responds in a stressful situation but I am a medical pragmatist and ultimately like to see people gain control over stress so here are my top 10 suggestions to reduce stress that I share with patients:
1. Realize that whatever is stressing you will eventually resolve itself—nothing lasts forever
2. If you have symptoms that impact your effectiveness to work, think and behave with civility to your loved ones or work colleagues – get psychological support to figure out how you can cope in a more constructive way
3. Preserve your health sleep at least 6- 7 hours so your body can rejuvenate itself from daily the wear and tear of stress
4. Eat breakfast it will give you more energy to get thru it all
5. Take a 10 minute break in the middle of the day- this gives you a mental energy boost
6. Take a multi-vitamin we use up more vitamins under stress
7. Eat wholesome whole foods like whole grains, fish and lean meats, veggies and fruits your body needs nourishment under strain not junk food
Mobilize and take a 20 minute daily walk—physical activity mobilizes endorphins the “feel good” hormones
Answer the question “What 5 things am I grateful for today?” and find something inspiring to read every dayMake a commitment to yourself to go visit a friend in person this week—we all need each other One more stress buster it’s not intuitive under circumstances of strain but it works —do something kind for someone, compliment somebody, wish someone well – for no good reason or help someone out. Reaching out to help someone reminds us of the interconnected nature of the human experience—and our capacity to aspire to our highest nature something we often forget under stress. As the author of One Door Closes, Another Door Opens, Arthur Pine, put it “Caring can start a domino effect.