Stress: Your Worst Enemy

The skier perches at the gate awaiting the signal, muscles tense, throat dry, heart racing.

The patient sits in a windowless room awaiting the needle, tense, sweating, heart pounding.

Adrenaline and noradrenaline race through both of their bodies. Their bloodstreams flood with glucose, and their hearts quicken to provide oxygen and fuel to their muscles for the qualifying run or the sprint from the clinic.

The skier spent her energy on the slope. The patient passed out.

Stress is an undeniable fact of life. The energy boost it provides gets us over life’s hurdles every day, but problems arise when unrelieved stress persists for long periods. Stress suppresses the immune system and is a contributing factor in most diseases. The body will develop symptoms of wear and tear, especially on the organs involved. Hypertension, heart disease, kidney disease, gastrointestinal disorders, ulcers, headaches, insomnia, depression, and anxiety can develop. Prolonged time in this mode results in exhaustion.

There’s a very good chance that if something’s ailing you, it’s worsened by stress. “Today, at least three quarters of those who visit their doctor have a stress-related complaint,” wrote Terry Looker and Olga Gregson in their book Managing Stress. People seek relief with tranquilizers and antidepressants, which account for a quarter of all prescriptions in the United States.

How you deal with the stressors in your life will largely determine your health and longevity. There are effective physical, emotional, and spiritual methods of managing stress. Using these methods could add years to your life by reducing the effects of stress and could make a noticeable difference in how you feel.

Managing Stress Physically
Of the many ways to prevent damage from prolonged stress in your life, relaxation, exercise, and a balanced diet top the list.

“One antidote to stress is relaxation,” said Sandra Hunter, R.N., and licensed massage therapist. One way to become relaxed is therapeutic massage, which slows the heart rate, improves circulation and digestion, relaxes muscles, and relieves pain associated with chronic tension. Hunter has estimated that “60 to 65 percent of people who get massage therapy do so for stress-related problems.”

Other activities that lead to relaxation include exercise (especially aerobic), soothing music, meditation and prayer, deep breathing, talking to a friend, and writing down your feelings. Think about what’s relaxing for you and do it. Enjoyable activities release endorphins, which provide a sense of well-being and pleasure.

Because the body has been prepared for action during the stress response, exercise is an excellent way to relieve stress. Exercise strengthens muscles, bones, and the heart; protects against heart disease; and leads to your sense of well-being.

“Walking is the cheapest, easiest, and safest way to exercise and achieve fitness,” wrote Looker and Gregson. “You will feel good about yourself and therefore more able to face the demands and pressures of life.”

Maintaining your ideal weight with a well-balanced diet will fortify you for the physiological demands of stress. “Under stress we produce more free radicals unstable molecules, which can cause damage, so it is crucial to provide more antioxidants, which help neutralize free radicals,” said nutritionist Henry Hall. Antioxidants abound in fresh fruits and vegetables, so be sure you eat plenty every day. Because stress and time constraints go hand in hand, people tend to shortchange themselves nutritionally by eating fast food or sugary snacks. A low-potency vitamin and mineral supplement might help prevent deficiencies.

Managing Stress Emotionally
Your attitude is more important than you may realize in managing stress. Improving your social skills and having a sense of humor will help maintain your emotional reserves.

One study found that people with the least number of close friends, relatives, and social connections had mortality rates two to three times higher than those with many social connections. Thomas R. Blakeslee, author of The Attitude Factor, wrote, “Life expectancy tables show a difference of nine years between people with very poor social connections and those with very good ones.” Married people live five years longer.

People can create stress through their interpersonal communications. Passive people may stew; people won’t know how they feel if they don’t tell them. More aggressive people may not communicate well or may say hurtful things. Dr. Larry Kubiak, licensed psychologist and director of psychiatric services of Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Center, said, “I have a formula for successful phrasing of feelings: `I feel . . .’; `When you . . .’; `I would prefer. . .’; `Because . . .’ Using the formula, you have a better chance of getting your needs met and being heard.”

Humor has the power to reverse attitudes. Laughter–it brings people together; it’s fun, nonfattening, and relieves stress.

Psychoneuroimmunology is a growing field linking the relationships between emotions and our immune response. Studies at Loma Linda University School of Medicine have shown that laughter stimulates the immune system. It does so by increasing the number of activated T lymphocytes, T cells, and the number and activity of killer cells that attack viral or cancer cells.

In her article “Humor: An Antidote for Stress,” Patty Wooten, R.N., B.S.N., C.C.R.N., wrote, “We know that, during stress, . . . elevated levels of [cortisol in the bloodstream] have a immunosuppressive effect. . . . Laughter can lower cortisol levels and thereby protect our immune system.”

In another study done at State University of New York a specific chemical, salivary immunoglobulin A, “our first-line defense against the entry of infectious organisms through the respiratory tract,” was found to be “lower on days of negative mood and higher on days with positive mood.”

A strong immune system means less time in the sickbed, so read the funnies, watch I Love Lucy reruns. Do what it takes to have several good belly laughs a day.

Time Management
Time management techniques work because an increase in efficiency will increase productivity. More effective use of your time means more leisure and more time with your family. The result is less anxiety and stress.

“Time pressures are a central component for people who feel swamped,” said Kubiak. “Successful people learn to prioritize. Do the most important things first. During the day, stop and ask yourself, `Is what I’m doing the best use of my time?'”

Thinking about and writing down your core values will help you to identify your priorities. Then learn to say no to low-priority activities or delegate and start each day with a purpose.

Friends and family are important, so put them on your list too. Otherwise, work will magically expand to fill whatever time is available.

People who have a positive attitude about their future have more inner control. Goals, as opposed to wishful thinking, help define reality and lower frustration, because vagueness and doubt are stressors.

Both long- and short-term goals improve self-image, provide a guide or track for your life, help to sort priorities, and give criteria for decisions. The best goals must be specific and challenging, yet realistic and obtainable. After you set your goal, begin acting on it. When you meet an obstacle, you have two options: either get rid of the obstacle, or alter the goal. Be flexible; remember, goals can be changed.

Overworked, overwhelmed people can get trapped in a procrastination orbit, which is not a happy place. They should practice making decisions quickly (not major ones) and act on them immediately. To disengage from the cycle, procrastinators should use a priority system, break big jobs into manageable-sized pieces, and reward themselves for their accomplishments.

Using these proven time-management principles of prioritizing, goal-setting, and avoiding procrastination will give you more time to enjoy life.

Quick Fixes
Sometimes people resort to destructive behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, overeating, and using stimulants and drugs, to relieve stress. In the process they damage their health and actually increase their stress.

“If the stressor is unusually strong they may resort to a quick and easy method, such as drinking, if they feel overwhelmed. An addiction can sneak up on them,” said Kubiak. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism director, Enoch Gordis, M.D., said, “Stress is commonly believed to be a factor in the development of alcoholism.”

A popular quick fix is the use of stimulants. Caffeine and nicotine artificially boost the energy level and are addictive. When the body needs rest, stimulants allow people to push themselves beyond healthy limits. Users of stimulants may have a sleep debt, which adversely affects the body’s ability to manage stress and fight off infections. Caffeine stimulates the production of noradrenaline (just like stress), increases the heart rate, causes loss of important minerals in the urine, and can lead to sleep disturbances, irregular heartbeat, and stomach problems.

Nicotine is a lethal quick fix for stress. Are you a smoker, stressed and pressed for time? Researchers in Great Britain figured that pack-a-day smokers lose 11 minutes of their life for each cigarette. Each pack shortens life by three hours and 40 minutes. The habit costs smokers almost two months less of life in a year. Approximately one fifth of the deaths in the United States are attributed to smoking.

The choices you make to manage stress in your life today will influence all of your tomorrows for bad or good.

Medical science is discovering what many people have known all along: that one’s spirituality influences their emotional responses as well as behaviors. Could spirituality be an antidote to stress in your life?

In response to recent research many medical schools have included spirituality education in the required curriculum. David Larson, president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research, said, “There is something about religion that is good for your health.”

The Alameda County Study found that people who are active in their churches are less stressed over finances, failing health, and other problems that trigger depression.

There is another underutilized option for dealing with stress that reaches all the way back to our roots. “In the beginning” God made provision for dealing with the stresses of life when He set an example of resting on the seventh day after His six days of creation work. God blessed the seventh day and gave to the human race 24 hours every week for restoration, healing, and fellowship with Him.

Rest means to stop, to desist, to cease from doing. It’s a time set aside to nurture our relationship with God through worship, prayer, and Bible study. God ordained rest as well as work in the fourth commandment because He was aware of our tendency to overwork and neglect essential rest. In The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Rest even from the thought of labor.” The Sabbath is a faith-building experience that links us with divine power.

Spirituality can bring peace amid the storms of life. It fills a void that nothing else can. You are a complex being with needs in four interrelated realms: physical, emotional, social, and spiritual. Just as stressors may come from any of these realms, so can the methods of managing them. Optimal stress reduction is achieved when a person incorporates coping methods in all four of these realms. A comprehensive approach to stress management should make you happier, healthier, and more active physically and socially.

You may sometimes require the services of a doctor, but hopefully, with your newfound skills, it will not be for the effects of stress.

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