Stress: The Silent Killer

By Martin V. Cohen, Ph.D.

We experience stress every minute of our lives. Whether slight or intense, it’s always there and most likely escalating, especially in these times of rapid change, high technology and personal uncertainty. We are in the midst of a technological and communication revolution, reminiscent of what Alfred Tofler referred to in his landmark book entitled “Future Shock.” People are talking on their cell phones while driving and pagers are almost obsolete. Computers and computer notebooks allow information to flow to and from us twenty four hours per day and palm pilots seem to be the next wave of technology. These advances, while convenient, have only added to an already skyrocketing national stress level. Essentially, It’s nerve wracking doing two or more things at the same time.

Most people would agree that, a life without challenge or even a modicum of “character-building hardship”, would be dull and monotonous. Studies have shown that too much challenge, hardship or change cause an increase in the risk of illness. Experts refer to stress as the “silent killer.”

Keeping stress at a comfortable level seems to be the key to physical and mental well-being, albeit an elusive one. By understanding what we are experiencing when under pressure and learning relaxation techniques and new coping behaviors, we can manage our stress levels with greater efficiency, thereby avoiding both panic and the health-threatening effects of stress.. Since we are undergoing some kind of change twenty four hours a day, it’s wise to start identifying and expressing feelings (both physical and emotional) as a way to smooth out the jagged edges of stress. Developing this ability also serves as a buffer zone to the times when the changes in our lives take a radical turn--in any direction.

Even seemingly positive events such as career advancement, marriage, or the purchase of a new home may trigger unforeseen anxiety. However, what may be stressful to one person may minimally affect another--and vice versa. The reason: it is not the event which is stressful, but how we view and respond to the event that counts. This is good news, for while we often have little control over what happens to us, we do have choices in the way we view the circumstances, and by extension, how we react to them.

One place to begin increasing our knowledge of stress is right at “home:” our own bodies. At the first signs of stress, our bodies mobilize the resources to meet the challenge. We shift in a “fight or flight” mode: an automatic response that dates back to pre-historic times. In meeting life-threatening challenges of a wild and competitive environment (perhaps like today’s freeways), early humans experienced such bodily alerts as increased heart and breath rates, rapid blood flow to the muscles and high octane adrenaline levels: signals of “fight or flight,” a mechanism which was necessary for survival. This response to stress is now a “wired in” physiological phenomenon. Getting fired or severing relations with a spouse or partner may trigger the same response in today’s world. However, this “early warning system” can be useful. Imagine that you are walking down a dark, deserted street and you suddenly see a large shadowy figure heading for you. Sensing danger, we, like our ancestors, experience “fight or flight” body alerts. The heart races, breath quickens, muscles get tense, our vision might become more acute and time might seem to slow down, enabling us to focus more clearly on the situation at hand. We are preparing to either fight off this potential threat or run for our lives.

This stress reaction is not always advantageous since many of our modern stressors are not life-threatening and, thus, not well suited for this “fight or flight” response. It is not generally adaptive to flee (or fight) when a boss makes unreasonable demands on us. When the stress response kicks in, appropriate or not, there are steps we can take to alleviate the effects. In twenty two years of therapeutic practice working with victims of trauma (often called the outer limits of stress), I’ve seen them work.

TEN STEPS TOWARD EFFECTIVE STRESS MANAGEMENT

1) AWARENESS is the first step. Jot down the physiological symptoms (e.g., racing heart, tightening of muscles); the emotional symptoms (e.g., difficulty concentrating, agitation); and the behavioral symptoms (e.g., overeating, difficulty sleeping). Just being aware of these bodily reactions takes away some “unknowns;” knowing what to expect is half the battle.

2) A good night’s SLEEP is very important. By sleeping at least seven hours, we move through sleep cycles that help us recover from stress. Deep sleep and dream states (even the disturbing ones) re-charge our systems and promote a sense of well-being. There are herbal supplements that aid in getting a good night’s sleep without the habit forming effects of prescription sleeping pills. Check your local health food store or pharmacy.

3) EXERCISE is a must. Aerobic movements burn off harmful stress hormones, release muscle tension and allow endorphins (the brain’s natural pleasure chemicals) to flow into the body. Remembering that our bodies are connected to our heads is so basic that we often forget--especially when under duress. Sometimes it’s wise to establish exercise patterns (maybe more than one discipline) so that when stress hits we do it without thinking. At a minimum, start a walking program of at least 30 minutes daily.

4) NUTRITION. There are certain foods that help reduce anxiety. Complex carbohydrates such as potatoes, pasta and whole grain breads have a calming effect on our bodies. One culprit we know about is caffeine. Cut down on this jagged mood producer and your stress levels will decrease immediately. Substitute herbal teas; some of which are natural energizers like ginseng. Read labels too. Avoid preservatives, triglycerides and chemical additives. These may be good for our cars, not for our bodies.

5) DEEP BREATHING. When tension mounts, it often helps to stop what you’re doing and breathe slowly, consciously and deeply. Follow your breath by counting the inhales and exhales (1 to 10) then start over. Allow your stomach to expand fully and put your “mind’s eye” on your abdomen. The increased oxygen levels and body-mind meshing will help induce a sense of peacefulness and calm..

6) MODIFY NEGATIVE SELF-STATEMENTS. Become aware of your negative self-talk and change the language cues you are giving yourself. Become your own editor/best friend. There’s an excellent book on this by Shad Helmstetter called “The Self-Talk Solution.”

7) TIME MANAGEMENT. Don’t become a slave to your lists. However, it helps sort out the chaos by developing skills in prioritizing goals and tasks. Many community colleges offer courses on time management and the bookstores are stocked with books on taking control of your time more effectively. A classic book on this subject is “How To Get Control Of Your Time And Your Life” by Alan Lakein. Those who plan and fulfill their plans are less prone to become stressed out.

8) Give yourself avenues for SELF-EXPRESSION. Keep a journal, take an acting class, learn to play an instrument; the possibilities are endless. Find projects that you are drawn to or something that you are passionate about doing even when the going gets rough--because that’s when we need expressive outlets the most. Many find crafting or painting a source of solace.

9) Develop a SUPPORT NETWORK. There are few substitutes for talking about what you are experiencing. Support groups flourish in this country for two main reasons: (1) the feelings of connectedness they produce and (2) the human context of empathic others who will listen to us and offer nurturing feedback. It’s a good idea to start a support group. If the stress you are undergoing has a “theme” (i.e., divorce, job loss, bereavement) it’s wise to find a group that is tailor made to this situation. Ask around, consult a counseling center, or check local newspapers for leads on available groups.

10) CHOOSE YOUR ATTITUDE toward the stressors in your life. Viktor Frankl survived the concentration camps of Germany by exercising this power (For more about this, read his landmark book entitled “Man’s Search For Meaning.) Realize that this shift takes time, practice and perserverence. Developing the pointers listed above will help you to move in the direction of self-empowerment and by extension, make you more stress resistant. Now for the bonus:

BONUS TIP: SENSE OF HUMOR. Most stressful situations have a tender, not so serious side. Learning how to tickle it is an art worth trying to master. Laughing (not necessarily out loud) at our predicament, can indeed be the best medicine. Norman Cousins pulled out of a life-threatening bout with cancer by renting Laurel and Hardy and other funny videos videos. This doesn’t mean denial of stress; it does mean that , not only can we choose our attitude, we can also choose to create a more life enhancing mood.

© 2000 Martin V. Cohen, Ph.D.


 
Home
FAQ
Services
Articles
Contact us