Ummm…. Ohhhh…. Please, be patient with me, I may be feeling a little stressed.
How often do we give ourselves the permission to admit this? Better yet, how often do we allow ourselves to do something about it? And now the tough question, how often do we do much other than judge ourselves or others for even mentioning it?
Is our relationship with stress causing us stress?
Stress is often viewed as contributing to many of the leading causes of death in this country including heart disease, cancer, alcoholism, and diabetes. It seems like we all know that “stress is a bad thing”, but maybe this relationship with stress is stressful in itself!
Since 2007, the American Psychological Association creates an annual report based on a nationwide survey of Americans regarding their perceptions and attitudes toward stress. It is fascinating work. In 2011, the study found that Americans reported the lowest level of stress in 5 years. Yet 39% of the respondents reported their stress levels were also increasing. It isn’t quite clear to me how the perceived level of stress was decreasing, yet when asked directly many said their levels of stress were actually increasing.
In any case, 52% reported that personal health problems were also a source of stress. So, basically we are stressed, getting sick, then becoming more stressed, then getting more sick….
Who wants to admit they are feeling like the stressed-out guy from 7th grade health studies class?
I still remember learning about how detrimental the effects of stress could be on the body during my 7th grade health studies class. There was even a chapter warning about stress in our book for the class. Like most textbooks, it was complete with pictures. One of the pictures is still firmly imprinted in my brain, nearly 30 years later.
This image from my 7th grade textbook of a man visually depicted what someone who couldn’t handle their stress might look like. It is an image that I have carried with me for nearly 3 decades now. It was a severely disheveled man with a briefcase full of papers that were disorganized and falling out in one hand, a beer bottle in the other hand, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and a beer belly popping out of his pants so big that it could have competed with a woman 9 months pregnant. The image was accompanied by the words “Don’t be stressed.”
OK. Cool. I won’t be stressed. I will handle my stress when I grow up. It is as easy as that. I mean really, that guy clearly is not me and I can definitely handle my life better than he can. Obviously. My arrogant 13-year-old mind couldn’t comprehend how life could make anyone feel or look like the man in that picture. Oh, what beautifully painful lessons life was going to teach me.
Recent stressful events can predict how close you are to a major health break down?
The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory is a simple tool for adding some perspective to how likely your recent life events are to increase your risk of a “major health breakdown in the next two years.” Basically, a variety of stressful life events are listed with a numerical weight of how likely the event is to affect your health.
Huh… well, I did do this little exercise and it revealed that my life experiences over the past year definitely puts me in the at risk category. The Holmes-Rahe Inventory predicts that a score of 150-300 correlates to a 50% risk of a "major health breakdown in the next two years." Over 300 on their scale is an 80% chance. I am non-negotiably well over that 300 point mark. (And, if we look at the past 5 years, well then, we are looking at a score of over 700.) This means that based on my life experience in the past year... Well, huhn. OK, maybe I have been pushing a bit lately, just didn't quite realize how much. If you are curious to find out how you compare, the exercise takes only about 2 minutes of your time.
But, nah, it’s cool. I can handle it. Stress doesn’t affect me… I am not that guy from my 7th grade Health Studies textbook. Not me. I can handle it.
We can handle it... just at a price.
Hans Selye argued that we all can handle it, but at a price. Dr. Selye was one of the early modern researchers on stress and the effects that it has on the body. He suggested that the body goes through three stages of adapting to stress. First is what he called the “Alarm Reaction” which includes increasing heart rate, blood sugar increases to feed the brain and muscles, sweating helps to decrease the body temperature, and digestion is decreased. This generally involves the Sympathetic Nervous System, or what is commonly called “Fight or Flight”. You might recognize these common symptoms of an “adrenaline rush” as adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and other hormones are released into the body. This natural response of the body is rather brilliant, it is what allows us to escape from danger or fight off predators.
Selye referred to the next stage as the “Resistance Phase,” this is the time that cortisol is released, fat is stored more easily, and sodium is retained. The third and final stage he referred to as “Exhaustion” which most often has detrimental affects on the heart & cardiovascular system, brain & cognitive functions, digestion, immune system, and glucose regulation. The body actually has a series of very intelligent responses to help us respond to adversity or “stress”. Dr. Selye shared later in life that "stress" may have not been the best word choice. He was later known to be more clear that he was describing the body's innate response to a stressor or an event that strained us, rather than simply looking at "stress" in the body. This clarification is very important.
By understanding that the body will have normal, predictable responses to "stressors" like those described by Selye, we can begin using these life events as opportunities to practice life skills. Similar to how a professional tennis player would stress their muscles in pursuit of the most effective backhand stroke, it is possible to view stressful life events also as "practice". We can also practice compassion and offer additional support to ourselves during times of increased susceptibility to these stressors, like those listed in the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory.
Were the answers in traditional forms of medicine all along?
Most traditional forms of medicine include herbs that are now referred to as adaptogens, which are used to decrease the effects of stress on the body. Some of the more common adaptogenic herbs include ginseng, holy basil, rhodiola, cordyceps, and ashwaganda. I often suggest adaptogenic herbs to my patients, particularly during life transitions, physical or mental training, and illness.
Dr. Israel Brekhman was the Russian scientist that conducted a lot of early research on adaptogenic herbs, this work earned him significant recognition by the former Soviet government. He found that by using these adaptogenic plants regularly one could increase productivity, performance, and overall health.
Modern research has taught us that physical activity is one of the best tools for decreasing the effect of stress on the body. Of course, regular meditation has also been shown to decrease the effects of stress on the body. In reality, there are a large variety of “proven” ways to reduce stress including chewing gum, taking a nap, laughing, art, writing, or spending time with a pet.
The first step is always admitting there is a problem
Of course, as with most things, you must first admit that there is a problem. And I was still having a difficult time overcoming the image burned into my young 13-year-old mind. Who wants to admit that they might truly sympathize with that guy now?
In her highly entertaining TedTalk, Dr. Kelly McGonigal reports that our fear about the effects of stress may actually be one of the most damaging aspects of our stress response. She suggests that viewing the stress response as helpful may create “an environment of courage.” Instead of an example of our weakness or “I should be able to handle this”, the stress response is a reminder of our body's natural ability to help us survive and practice in the face of challenges. It is the opportunity to practice our backhand, if you will. Sometimes painfully over and over and over again. So be compassionate with yourself: talk to your doctor about adding adaptogenic herbs into your protocol and rest. Just like professional athletes rest, professional life livers also need to rest. Rest.
The "Rest & Digest" system (the Parasympathetic Nervous System) works in concert with the "Fight or Flight" system. Like yin & yang. Actually, it is almost exactly like yin & yang. Maybe there really is something to these systems of medicine that have been around for thousands of years. Our busy lives make it easy to live life in "Fight or Flight" mode, which means that we must often put more effort into increasing the "Rest & Digest" aspect. It sounds funny to think that it requires effort to rest, but sometimes it does. Most often, it seems most of the effort is simply in giving ourselves the permission to rest.
Many suggest that Dr. Brekhman’s research was done in part to increase athletic performance. It wasn’t necessarily to benefit those that were “weak or couldn’t manage it” as my teenage mind understood it, rather it was for those that pushed themselves past the point of comfort. For most of us, years of conditioning have taught us that stress is bad so we shouldn’t notice it. And if we do, well clearly it is a weakness or fault. In reality, our bodies will experience the effects of stress most any time we challenge ourselves past the point of comfort.
A new image of stress
After many years of practice, I am finally ready to let go of my image of stress from 30 years ago and replace it with a new image. My new image is of a professional athlete who also stresses their body every day in order to perform better in competitions. The challenges of life since have become opportunities to practice my backhand, so to say. They give me a chance to practice and increase my performance in stressful situations. This has made it much easier to move past the shame and admit when I am feeling stressed. Finally, it has made me more compassionate during the periods that my "practice" is extra strenuous.
And with that, I am off to a restorative yoga class....
“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.”
-- Dr. Hans Selye