Controlling Stress: The Part of Your Health You’re Probably Ignoring

by Jeff V. on February 15, 2013

You’ve heard it before: stress is called ‘the silent killer’ and is skyrocketing in the United States. It’s no longer foo-foo to say that you need to manage stress; even family doctors are telling folks to employ methods to keep stress at bay. Call it a sign of the times.

But first — what is stress?

My handy OS X dictionary defines stress thusly:

Stress: state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.

Well, that’s one definition, but I’m looking for something a more in the health context. So let’s ask Richard Lazarus, a renowned psychologist, what he thinks.

…any event in which environmental demands, internal demands, or both tax or exceed the adaptive resources of an individual…

That’s better.

There are two kinds of stress, both of which essentially disrupt your body’s physical and psychological homeostasis: acute and chronic stress. They are not created equally.

Acute stress is the episodic, infrequent stress that comes from brief, intense stressors: narrowly escaping a traffic accident, taking a short walk in the freezing cold without adequate clothing, doing a very hard workout.

Chronic stress is the enemy we need to watch out for: he’s what causes us to keep our fight vs. flight systems in high gear over a prolonged period of time. Think job stress, domestic tension, loss of a loved one, financial worries. Our body reacts to these in very much the same way it reacts to being stalked by a bear, but these stressors don’t dissipate quickly. You either learn to mitigate them, or they take a toll on you. There is not much middle ground here.

These days, almost everyone is dealing with at least one symptom of chronic stress. These include:

  • Fatigue and/or propensity to nap for escapism
  • Headaches
  • Unpredictable mood swings
  • Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up
  • Sugar and caffeine cravings
  • Uncontrolled eating
  • Dizziness and/or lightheadedness, especially between meals
  • Digestive problems
  • Weakened immune system

Your body makes a hormone called cortisol in a daily pattern. Cortisol should the the highest in the morning, which helps you get your day going, and it should optimally taper off during the day and into the nighttime hours, winding you down for sleep. But when you’re stressed out, not only does cortisol shoot through the roof, but also your natural pattern of cortisol production gets entirely futzed. This futzed schedule is what causes stress to be so damaging. Among the effects are

  • Increased blood sugar
  • Irritable gut/bowels
  • Increased susceptibility to sickness
  • Hunger/sugar cravings
  • Increased fat storage
  • A disruption in hormone levels
  • Depression, anxiety and mood imbalances
  • A pathway to cardiovascular disease

We’ve all been there. Stress is miserable. So what can we do about it?

Plenty, but like every other aspect of controlling your health, it takes a mindful effort.

Make a conscious effort to reduce the stress over which you have some control

A great deal of stress doesn’t just ‘happen’ to us — we let it in our lives, unaware we’re doing so until it’s too late. Some common strategies to keep ‘optional’ stress at bay are:

  • Don’t try to please everyone — say ‘no’ sometimes when you know you can do what’s being asked.
  • Give up pointless, stupid arguments. Going back and forth with a guy on Facebook about politics? Give it up — you’re not going to change his mind, and he’s not changing yours.
  • Go on a ‘news diet’. News is meant to get eyeballs, ratings, pageviews and shares, and it’s almost universally negative. Do yourself a favor and dramatically limit the amount of ‘news’ you consume on a daily basis. Yes, you might miss out on a breaking story here or there, but you’ll spend your time with a good book or your family instead.
  • If you know a certain person stresses you out, avoid them if possible. Life is too short to keep the company of fools, so if you don’t have to, put up and enforce some social boundaries that will do you some good.

What about stress I can’t control?

Because you don’t live in a sitcom, you will have stress you cannot control that hangs around longer than you’d like. When this happens, you don’t hit the donuts — you practice stress mitigation techniques.

  • Acceptance — Type As have a hard time here, because they want to control circumstance and outcomes (I know, trust me). Sometimes, you have to simply go along with what’s happening and take it one step at a time. Accept what is happening, deal with it, and move on. Don’t freak out or entertain thoughts that this shouldn’t be happening — it is, so move along with it. Accept it.
  • Practice gratitude — you are luckier than you know. Re-frame the way you look at things but taking a moment to be grateful for everything you do have: friends, family, health, pets, a warm home, food on the table. Sure, you have stuff to deal with, but that’s life. Always be thankful for the positive things in your life.
  • Plan and organize — it’s amazing how much stress comes from poor planning and organization. If you’re stressed out, take a few minutes every morning to plan and organize your day and living space — you’ll be shocked at how far these little steps go.
  • Meditate or practice mindfulness — go inward. I mean it. Take five minutes, go to a quiet place, sit upright, and just breathe. Focus on your breath for five minutes. It will be hard, and your monkey mind will be flying all over the place, but that’s OK. Let it. Observe how frenzied it is, but don’t get frustrated. Just observe it, accept it, and keep focusing on your breath, as you get better, work your way up in time to a half hour five days a week. The effects are profound.

People always ask how I can lump stress in right behind advice on how to understand food. It’s simple: stress management is one of the most important things we can do for our health. All to often, though, we value the ‘warrior’ mindset: whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, and tough people muscle through everything, permanently unscathed.

Baloney. You have to manage stress, or it will eventually manage you. Don’t overlook this aspect of your health — it’s too easy to do, and the price is too high.

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