Get a Grip on Stress
We all know how it feels to be stressed out. But what actually causes stress and what does it do to our bodies? How do we avoid the damaging effects of stress?
A medical definition of stress is that which disturbs a person’s mental and physical well-being. However, a more common definition is that stress is a heightened response to both routine and out-of-the-ordinary conditions and events.
Stress takes a daunting toll on our nation’s health and finances. Studies and surveys show that:
* 70 to 80 percent of all visits to the doctor are for stress-related illnesses.
* People who experience high levels of anxiety are four to five times more likely to die of a heart attack or stroke.
* Stress contributes to approximately 50 percent of all illnesses.
* Stress-related injuries on the job have increased from 5 percent to more than 15 percent of all occupational disease during the past 10 years.
* The cost of job stress in North America is estimated at $200 billion annually; this includes costs of absenteeism, lost productivity and insurance claims
* 7 out of 10 people surveyed said they felt stressed in a typical workday.
* Approximately 43 percent of those interviewed said they suffer noticeable physical symptoms of burnout.
Stress is a natural part of being human and can function as a source of motivation as well as a catalyst for problem-solving. Not all stress results from crises and obstacles. Stress can also be triggered by events that create intense feelings of happiness or excitement. So how do you identify harmful stress, how does it hurt you, and how can you manage it in your life?
What causes stress?
Our 21st-century lives are full of stress. We live in a fast-paced world where technology enables people to be active 24 hours a day. Our ancestors were forced to go to bed when daylight ended: in contrast, electricity allows us to stretch our working hours around the clock. We are now linked globally by jet travel and telecommunications, which contribute to the frenetic work pace. Our contemporary culture has a reverence for productivity at work; as a result, many people are under pressure to work longer and harder. Consequently, people often abandon leisure activities and family time.
Causes of stress are termed stressors. Stressors can be physical or emotional, internally or externally generated. Various stimuli, including physical violence and internal conflicts, can be found at the root of stress. Major life events, such as putting an elderly parent in a nursing home, a birth or a death, and a marriage or a divorce, are common sources of stress. Minor incidents, such as bouncing a check or being stuck in a traffic jam, can also be stressors.
Responding to stressors
A physiological process occurs as the body reacts to a stressor. This “fight or flight” mechanism is triggered by the autonomic nervous system and can be a lifesaver in times of danger. The brain releases the stimulating stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine (also called adrenaline) into the system. As a result, the heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, muscles tense, the senses sharpen and metabolism changes. The entire physical system is now prepared to respond to an attack. Physiologically, one feels apprehension, tension and nervousness. This reaction is clearly helpful when we’re in immediate physical danger. However, all too often, the “danger” the body is responding to is loss of a job, prolonged illness, or death of a loved one. Many modem stressors do not go away quickly, so the body stays primed to react. Ongoing exposure to stress can result in mental and physical symptoms such as anxiety and depression, heart palpitations and muscular aches and pains. If the stress is not removed or reduced , illness often follows.
A physical effect
When the body is responding to a stressor, breathing is quick and shallow. As a result, the flow of oxygen is depleted and cells are deprived of oxygen, which they need for maintenance and health. Being in a chronic state of stress also shuts down functions such as metabolism, causing indigestion, heartburn and decreased sex drive. Stress also weakens the cardiovascular and immune systems and generally depletes any of the body’s vulnerable areas.
The cardiovascular system can suffer some of the most debilitating effects of chronic stress. Stress can cause increased levels of cholesterol and other lipids in the blood and can accelerate the development of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and other types of damage to blood vessels. Stress hormones may result in the presence of excessive cortisol, which can produce lesions in the heart muscles that, over time, can cause the heart to pump so erratically that death may result.
Research is also showing that stress has a negative impact on the immune system. Stress triggers hormones that are thought to inhibit the activity of white blood cells–the cells that fight off disease. These hormones have also been connected to cancer in some recent studies. Stress hormones also decrease the size of the thymus, which is responsible for the development and maintenance of the body’s immune system. Researchers acknowledge that Iong-term stress definitely suppresses the immune response.
Can stress affect the mind? Chronic stress has been linked with accelerated memory loss. Research is also beginning to show that stress hormones over-stimulate those areas of the brain most closely linked with depression.
A combination of how much stress we have in our lives and how we react to it determines whether stress is unhealthy for us. A little stress–good or bad–keeps us alert, challenges us, and assures us that all our systems are responding. Stress moves into the harmful category when it manifests as a combination of behavioral, emotional, intellectual and/or physical symptoms. These symptoms indicate that we are not managing stress well.
The stress-resistant person
No one is immune to all stress; however, some tolerate it better than others. People who succeed in resisting stress have four qualities in common. They look at problems positively as challenges to be met; they have well-defined personal goals; their lifestyles are sensible and include regular exercise and a method of relaxation; and they are socially involved with others.
The vitamin connection
When your body experiences chronic stress, it needs greater amounts of vitamins and minerals to maintain regular functioning. Signs of vitamin depletion can include depression, anxiety, gastric upset and insomnia, which are also symptoms of excessive stress. Here are the core vitamins and minerals that are essential for stress management, along with suggested daily dosages.
Vitamin A: 15,000 international units (TU) daily (10,000 IU for pregnant women). This vitamin helps adrenal gland function and promotes healthy growth of epithelial cells, including those lining the blood vessels.
Vitamin B complex: 100 mg. daily. These vitamins help the nervous system function, reduce anxiety and immune system damage, and improve brain function. Also include 50mg. daily of pyridoxine (B-6), which influences neurotransmitters and helps convert tryptophan to serotonin.
Vitamin C: 2,000 to 4,000 mg. daily. A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C boosts the immune system and is needed to produce connective tissue, which helps maintain the structure of tissues, including blood vessels. Vitamin C reduces some allergic responses and helps offset the depletion of adrenal gland hormones caused by stress.
Vitamin E: 800 IU daily. Vitamin E is the strongest antioxidant and works with vitamin C and selenium to help strengthen the immune system, fight heart disease, promote healthy nerve function, and minimize the damage to muscles caused by free radicals.
Calcium: 1,500 mg. daily. Calcium relaxes muscles, builds bone, reduces intestinal irritation, and lowers blood pressure.
Magnesium: 800 mg. daily. This element is vital for nerve conditioning, muscle contraction, and transmission of impulses through the nervous system. Low intakes of magnesium are associated with high blood pressure and heart disease.
Potassium: 2,000 mg. daily. Potassium is especially needed during stress because it promotes adrenal gland functioning. It also helps muscle contraction, nerve conduction, heartbeat regulation and energy production. It interacts with sodium to regulate the body’s fluid balance and can help lower blood pressure.
Selenium: 70 mcg. for men, 55 mcg. for women daily. Selenium is a trace mineral with antioxidant properties that helps prevent some cancers and heart disease and boosts the immune system.
Zinc: 50 mg. daily. This essential element is involved in the production of more than 200 body enzymes. It helps heal wounds, promotes healthy skin and boosts immune function.
Alternative medicine enjoys widespread use in Europe, China and Latin America, and many complementary treatments are now accepted by numerous traditional physicians as effective stress reducers. Some alternative approaches that have been successful in reducing stress are acupuncture, acupressure, Ayurvedic medicine and naturopathy. Some meditative movement therapies, such as yoga and tai chi, claim excellent results in relieving stress. Manual healing methods that can help diminish stress are massage, chiropractic and osteopathic therapies. Mind-body interventions that can alleviate stress include hypnosis, psychotherapy/counseling, and bio-electromagnetic therapy.
Even though modern society is filled with hectic living, surprises and pressures, it is possible to escape the harmful effects of stress. Many natural therapies have proven to be effective for stress prevention and relief. Explore the various forms of alternative medicines to discover the healing method that works best for you.
Deborah Morrison is a certified psychotherapist and counselor. She writes about mental health issues for professional journals and consumer magazines.
Many symptoms can signal that c stress levels are out of control. He are some symptoms to look for:
BEHAVIORAL/EMOTIONAL anger/hostility apprehension complaining critical of self defensive behavior denial depression diminished initiative excessive smoking feelings of panic frequent crying habitual teeth-grinding heavy alcohol use irritability withdrawal indecisiveness mistrust mood swings nail biting restlessness suicidal thoughts or plans
PHYSICAL anorexia indigestion, stomachaches chronic fatigue insomnia constipation or diarrhea disturbed motor skills frequent urination headaches heart palpitations spasms in hands or feet hyperactivity hyperventilation impaired sexual function trembling, tics, twitches itchy scalp loss of appetite nausea/vomiting rash sweaty palms tense muscles
INTELLECTUAL diminished fantasy life forgetfulness inattention to details reduced creativity lack of concentration oriented to past rather than future unaware of external stimuli preoccupation
Prevention is key
Regular use of stress reduction techniques will help boost your immunity, improve your outlook and make your life much more pleasurable overall. Choose from some of these strategies to help alleviate stress:
* laugh often
* be prepared for changes
* get rid of anger and resentment
* control your time–don’t let it control you
* adapt your environment to meet your needs
* replace the vitamins and minerals that stress depletes
* get regular exercise
* write down pent-up emotions
* look at life through a child’s eyes
* be assertive
* take a “time-out” when you need one
* keep your expectations realistic
* develop an enjoyable hobby
* slow down
* treat yourself with respect
* be decisive
* take vacations
* nurture your spirituality
* minimize uncertainty
* eat at a leisurely pace
COPYRIGHT 2001 Measurement & Data Corporation
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group