Stress: The Silent Killer
By Martin V. Cohen, Ph.D.
We experience stress every minute of our lives.
Whether slight or intense, its 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, Its nerve wracking doing two or more things at the same
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
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, its 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 todays 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
todays 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), Ive
seen them work.
TEN STEPS TOWARD EFFECTIVE
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 nights 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 nights 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 brains 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 its 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 youre 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 minds
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. Theres an excellent book on
this by Shad Helmstetter called The Self-Talk Solution.
7) TIME MANAGEMENT. Dont 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
thats 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. Its a good idea to start
a support group. If the stress you are undergoing has a theme
(i.e., divorce, job loss, bereavement) its 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 Mans 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 doesnt mean denial of stress; it does mean that , not
only can we choose our attitude, we can also choose to create a more life
© 2000 Martin V. Cohen, Ph.D.