The quick answer: We need a little stress to get out of bed in the morning, but too much stress can put us back into bed, maybe a hospital bed.
Ever feel like you’re in an endless war; never finding real peace? Welcome to the scary world of chronic stress.
Some years ago, our local hospital put on a series of six lectures about stress. (Notice how just putting the work stress in boldface gives you a little adrenaline bump?) Each week the docs discussed the effects of stress on their area of specialty, and told what they could do about it. A cardiologist explained the role of stress in heart disease and then explained a relatively new procedure, coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG). Because CABG starts with the surgeon cutting your chest apart with a power saw, it made a big impression. A rheumatologist told how stress-related rheumatoid arthritis ravages the joints and explained how those hips and knees could now be replaced. Ouch!—another operation with a saw. A G.I. guy told how stress affected the digestive system, and so on. It was plenty scary and each week the audience grew.
The last lecture was by a psychologist who gave us some ideas about how to manage our stress. I’ve never seen an audience so eager to hear a message. I learned three lessons from the seminar:
- In each stress-related disease, prevention was way better than the treatment.
- Prevention translated to stress management.
- Stress management requires a new discipline. You can’t just do the old stuff faster or more efficiently; you have to step out of the cycle.
Hans Selye (1907-1982)
Selye made the first modern connection between stress and disease (the ancient doctors had figured it out also). Selve identified the stages of protracted stress—how we can go from alarm, to resistance (fight or flight), to exhaustion. Though stress came in many forms, Selye recognized there was a common response in the body (involving the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal glands, or HPA, axis). From this common response, a variety of diseases could result, unique to the person. One person gets ulcers, another rheumatoid arthritis; here is high blood pressure, over there, heart disease; this person gets an allergy, while her friend gets an aggressive form of breast cancer. Beware the pathology of chronic stress.
Here’s another—more scary—effect of stress: It accelerates aging. Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone and while it makes you run faster, it also causes you to age faster. We’ve talked about other aging factors before: like elevated blood glucose and insulin from too much sugar, or an excess of free radicals from too little natural food containing antioxidants. Today we focus on controlling our cortisol, the stress hormone.
Stress and Cancer
Stress increases the risk of cancer, though the pathway remains unknown. A 2010 study led by Yale’s Dr. Tian Xu found a genetic mechanism for stress-induced cancers. The risk of cancer in a cell rises if several genes are simultaneously defective. Working with fruit flies Xu demonstrated that even if the genetic defects were in different cells, stress (caused by wounds) drove intercellular signaling that joined the effects and increased the risk of cancer. So, though the mechanism is genetic, stress is a factor in cancer.
The stress of life is a factor in aggressive breast cancers. Previous studies had shown higher breast cancer rates among socially isolated laboratory rats. Now a study of cancer patients, just reported, finds tumor aggressiveness in humans linked to stress levels. More stress means more aggressive cancers.
Stress and Heart Disease
For a generation we wrongly blamed coronary heart disease (CHD) on dietary cholesterol and saturated fat, even though these foods had been part of our diet for generations before the rise of CHD. Scientists are now recognizing that CHD is multi-factorial—that a variety of ills contribute. One cause was given more attention by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick in his book, The Great Cholesterol Con. Kendrick theorizes that stress, perhaps more than poor diet or lack of exercise, is a main cause of CHD.
The World of Stress
Cycles: There are cycles to stress—daily (like getting to work on time), weekly (Sunday night worry about undone homework), monthly (bill payment), and even annually (tax deadlines, or Holiday worries). The laws of Nature do not restrict stress: it can be created out of thin air, and in unlimited quantity. Stress can have a “ratchet effect”, meaning it rises higher and higher, but doesn’t necessarily decrease.
Ownership: To manage stress we must take ownership. If we blame our stress on events, like the economy, or other people, we are also saying it’s out of our control. For stress management, control is everything. The stress process is unconscious, but it is not above management. Stress can be internal—we cause it ourselves, for example, by failing to plan and then being overrun by events. Stress is also external, a subconscious response to events or people. An underlying cause of external stress is fear. Fear has many forms: fear of authority figures, fear of failure, fear of the unknown. I’ve lived a few years and had my share of worries and I say this with authority: Our fears rarely happen but can be disabling.
Fear: President F. D. Roosevelt spoke of fear in a wise and calming way, saying the only thing to fear was fear itself. There is a promise in the scriptures that preparation protects from fear. I remember a proverb from El Salvador where life could be uncertain: “The prepared man is worth two men.” In our uncertain economy many worry about their job. Making the preparations that improve one’s ability to get another job will reduce stress. Money in the bank reduces stress also.
Planning: Procrastination, I think, is the most common cause of stress. The cure lies in planning. Just making a “to do” list reduces stress. Ranking the items by importance, A, B, or C, and resolving to do—today—the most important first (often they’re the hardest so get put off) will take a big load off your shoulders. The good we can do in life is reduced by every procrastination.
The key is not to run faster but to step out of the stress cycle. Here are seven ways:
- Family: The supporting love of family can be a great comfort. Who hasn’t come home from work, carrying all the troubles of the day on their shoulders, and found instant relief by getting down and wrestling with the kids?
- Best friends: A study of English children found being with their best friend gave the best relief from stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands, was most effectively relieved for children by best friends.
- Music: The beautiful wife just saw a bumper sticker for the classical music station: “Less stress, more Strauss.”
- Exercise: Strengthening the body helps it to relax and stimulates a similar process for the mind.
- Worship: Don’t you find, in the rhythm of church ritual, clarification of what’s really important? Whatever your faith, the God who orders the universe knows your name and proffers His peace.
- Meditation: Thinking more deeply about whatever troubles you can lead to new insights, and better paths to follow.
- Laugh: Remember Ferris Bueller? Life goes by pretty fast; if you don’t stop and have a little fun, you just might miss out.
The 52 Healthy Changes can be unsettling, even add to your stress. To counter this, we suggested writing weekly menus and shopping lists to protect you from the last minute panic over what to have for dinner.
Please comment: Ever been worried sick? How do you manage the stress in your life?
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.