Mache Seibel, MD
Has stress become a normal part of your life? One thing’s for sure, chronic stress is neither normal nor healthy. As a matter of fact, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), stress-related ailments and complaints are responsible for up to 85% of all doctor’s office visits and stress is now considered a hazard of the workplace. Here are some things you should know.
Stress is an emotional state of tension. Almost everyone has a little bit of stress – running late, a flat tire, family arguments. That’s part of normal life. In fact, experiencing no stress allows people to be off their competitive edge and might make a person ineffective (see below). Some stress is part of a survival mode that began thousands of years ago when our ancestors had to run away from a saber toothed tiger. In that situation, our adrenal glands start pumping adrenaline that stimulates the heart to beat faster and our lungs to breathe faster to get more oxygen. The adrenal glands also pour out cortisol to release more sugar to our muscles and brain. Our intestinal tract slows down, our muscles tense up, our blood vessels constrict and we prepare to either “fight or flee.” That’s very important in an emergency. It creates optimum productivity and helps us escape from danger, or become extremely focused for a sporting event, getting a report in on time, or giving a speech. After the situation passes, the body goes back to normal and our body and mind can rest and relax.
The problem comes from chronic stress. The same physical changes that go into action to get us ready for an emergency don’t turn off. They continue to keep our bodies in a state of tension for hours or days or weeks on end. Imaging running your car’s engine at full throttle for that long; it would burn out. So does your body. Productivity goes down and health declines.
We all know how stressful it can be just dealing with the curve balls ordinary life throws our way. The Holmes-Rahe Social Readjustment Scale first published in 1967 uses a quantifiable system for measuring the level of stress associated with many of life’s stressful events. The higher the score, the more stressful the event is likely to be. Below are some events common stressors and their associated level of stress:
|Life Event||Life change units|
|Death of a spouse||100|
|Death of a close family memeber||63|
|Personal injury or illness||53|
|Dismissal from work||47|
|Change of health in family member||44|
|Gain a new family member||39|
|Change in financial state||38|
|Change in frequency of arguments||35|
|Foreclosure of mortgage or loan||30|
|Change in responsibilities at work||29|
It causes pain and makes you ill. Think about a computer with too many programs running or a truck pulling too much weight. The computer crashes and the truck engine overheats. Here’s what stress does to your body when you continually worry about your boss at work or any other problems that seems to never go away.
The adrenal glands become over taxed and release large amounts of adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones that prime the body for action causing blood sugar, blood pressure and heart rate to increase, and your immune system to decrease putting you at more risk for infection and illness.
Nine Physical Effects of Stress:
When people are chronically stressed, their body talks to them. Muscles that stay tense and contracted can lead to migraine headaches, clenched jaws, low back pain and knots in your neck and shoulders. Stomachaches are also common. All this leads to grinding teeth, lost sleep and poor posture. Chronically high levels of cortisol can also lead to depression.
Some people say the gut has a mind of its own. The digestive system is lined with extremely sensitive nerve cells that respond to emotions. It contains 100 million neurons – more than the spinal cord.
The gut also has many of the neurotransmitters hormones that are in the brain such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. It’s called the enteric nervous system. When a person is frightened or stressed, these hormones prepare the body to fight or flee just like the brain prepared our cave man ancestors. With chronic stress the intestines also react by producing hormones that cause inflammation.
That’s why so many people have experienced indigestion, painful gas, heartburn or other “gut” problems when they are anxious. From irritable-bowel syndrome to diarrhea and pain, stress hits you right in the gut.
Headaches to stomach aches should be bad enough. But stress can also make it harder to cope, so things that are already hurting us, our existing aches and pains, seem worse.
Stress also lowers the immune system. That makes us more susceptible to viruses and bacterial infections because our body under reacts and can’t fight off infection. In some instances, stress can also cause the immune system to overreact and that can lead to asthma and skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.
Chronic stress can also increase inflammation in the body and even increase levels of the hormone C-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker that is known to be associated with an increase of heart disease.
Chronic stress affects one other area you should know about – your chromosomes. The tip of your chromosomes is called the telomere. It’s like the hard part of a shoestring and it protects the end of the chromosome both from fraying and also protects against cancer. People who are chronically stressed have telomeres that are about 50% shorter than people who say they are less stressed. This is a very important reason to reduce stress.
The best way to control stress is to short-circuit it. Learn to do things that disrupt stress’s harmful effects. Here are 10 techniques guaranteed to combat stress:
There’s no doubt about it; what we eat and how we feel are connected. Poor food choices such as eating too much junk food and comfort food, and drinking too much alcohol contribute to stress. Avoiding sugar and white grain and eating more vegetables, green fats like olive oil, avocados and fish are all great ways to eat away at stress, instead of stress eating away at you. One (for women) to two (for men) glasses of red wine daily (but not more) can also be helpful.
Here are 10 eating behaviors to lower stress:
I don’t have to tell you that smoking is bad for you. You already know that. Yet many people who are stressed smoke. In fact, people who are stress out often smoke even more. They say it helps to calm them. But here are some reasons smoking isn’t a good idea. Nicotine narrows blood vessels and makes your heart work harder. Remember with stress, the heart is already working overtime. The nicotine and carbon monoxide from the cigarette also reduce oxygen to your brain. Not good.
Here is another way to think about how smoking might be relaxing. You walk outside, find a quiet spot, light up a cigarette, inhale deeply, hold it in a few seconds, and then slowly blow it out. After several minutes of repeating this, the cigarette is inhaled and you feel better.
If you are a smoker, next time you feel stressed, try this variation. Walk outside, find a quiet spot, don’t light up, inhale deeply, hold it in a few seconds, and then slowly blow it out. Repeat for five minutes. I guarantee you at the end of that time you’ll feel more relaxed. And your heart and lungs will thank you.
Ten Bonus Stress Busting Tips: You can never have too many stress busters:
Stress affects everyone differently, but everyone is affected by it. The simple answer is if you are asking this question, you would likely benefit from seeking professional help. The longer you wait, the more affect stress has on your body. Talk with your health care provider or clergy. Just the act of seeking help will lower your stress.
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