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Stress: How it Affects You and What You Can Do About It

Jeanette Belloni Jun 11, 2011

We have all heard about the effects of stress on our bodies and our mental and emotional state, and we’ve all been told by our physicians, friends and family members that we should really find a way to reduce stress.  But stress is relative to the person experiencing it, no?  Do we all experience stress in the same way, and to the same degree?  And really, isn’t it a rather widely used term that people throw around to explain everything that doesn’t have a legitimate diagnosis?  Or is it a valid precursor to disease, or even worse, death?  What is it, really?  And how can we validate its existence to know that it should be treated so that perhaps, just perhaps, our lives could get a little less… stressful?  I even have to ponder that one for awhile.

Since the beginning of time, it seems that there has always been a relationship between stress and heart disease.  The ancient Greeks and even other cultures believed that the heart, rather than the brain, is the center of all emotions.  Thus, when we hear “heart broken,” “good hearted,” and “heart of gold,” they are all referencing character and personality.  And interestingly, as one researcher stated, if you want to “get to the heart” of an issue, whether it be an apple or an argument, you go to the “core” derived from the Latin word ‘cor’ meaning heart.  Ahh – we learn new things everyday!

So we can see that this is an interesting aspect of history, but isn’t stress a fairly new phenomena?  I’m wondering if today’s society truly experiences more stress than any society previously.  C’mon though, think about cavemen..  They must’ve been pretty stressed when it came to killing their prey (or vice versa) so that they could bring home the good eatins’.  I have many questions about how this phenomenon evolved, but I’m pretty confident that we all agree it exists.  The tension we feel when we are running behind schedule, the fear that someone will catch us in a lie, the anxiety we feel when someone is trying to control our lives and what choices we’ve made, and most prevalent, any aspect of conflict or confrontation.  I mean, we’ve all felt it; and I for one, have experienced everything I’ve listed above.  It’s part of life.  And I think we just found a name for it.  Stress.

It was the 1983 cover story in Time Magazine referring to stress as the new ‘Epidemic of the Eighties’ that had people start recognizing what it was and really being able to put a name, even a diagnosis to what they were feeling.  There have been numerous surveys that have suggested that the problem has progressively worsened since then.  I can’t think of a day that passes that I don’t hear something about stress, stress related diseases, how to conquer stress and so on. 

So how has it worsened from the days of cavemen as suggested above?  Is contemporary stress somehow different or more dangerous?  I’m not so sure.  But what I do know is that scientific research has increasingly confirmed the important influence of stress in numerous diseases, and uncovered the mechanics of actions responsible for its diverse effects on physical and mental health, as stated by Paul Rosch, MD.  “It is es­ti­mated that 75-80 per­cent of all vis­its to pri­mary care phy­si­cians in the U.S. are for stress re­lated com­plaints, and it is dif­fi­cult to think of any ill­ness rang­ing from the com­mon cold to can­cer, in which stress could not play a con­tribu­tory role.”

This whole idea of stress cannot be objective though.  What I find stressful might not be in the least stressful to you.  So it really has to do with perception.  Let’s say I’m going to the dentist, and I’m feeling stressed about it because I have no control over the procedure while the work is being done.  Meanwhile, if you go into the same situation, you may not have an issue with that and it would be as simple as drill, clean and swish.  What causes one person to stress and another not to?  Perception.  What distinguishes one person from another is the sense of control they perceived over the event.  Neither one of us had greater or less control, but the perception and expectation were quite different.  Therefore, we cannot define stress objectively, “all of our ani­mal and hu­man re­search con­firms that the sense or feel­ing of be­ing out of con­trol is al­ways dis­tress­ful.”

There is evidence that indicates that sudden death, which is the leading cause of death in the world, is frequently associated with an outpouring of stress related hormones that cause serious disturbances in heart rhythm that can be fatal in even young people.  In fact, research  from the Scientific Journal Medical Archives indicates that “Under se­vere stress, heart rate and blood pres­sure soar, blood sugar rises to fur­nish fuel for en­ergy, blood is shunted away from the gut where it is not im­me­di­ately needed for pur­poses of di­ges­tion to the large mus­cles of the arms and legs, to pro­vide more strength in com­bat, or greater speed in get­ting away from a scene of po­ten­tial peril.  The blood clots more quickly to pre­vent loss from hem­or­rhage, our pu­pils di­late to im­prove the range of vi­sion, and a mul­ti­tude of other re­ac­tions over which we have no con­trol are im­me­di­ately and auto­mati­cally evoked.”  Good stuff, isn’t it?

 Anybody in the mood for some red meat right about now?

So our bodies still react the way they did many years ago, with this archaic, primitive and stereotyped responses, that are not really useful these days and instead damaging or deadly.  With these responses being repeatedly invoked, it’s not hard to see why stress causes heart attacks, hypertension, strokes, ulcers, muscle spasms, and other diseases.

Hans Sayle, a Canadian researcher, coined the term “stress” about 60 years ago to explain what he called the “diseases of adaptation.”  He used it to describe a series of responses in laboratory animals subjected to severely disturbing physical or mental threats.  If persistent, these ended up causing ul­cers, heart at­tacks, hy­per­ten­sion, arthritis, kid­ney dam­age, and other dis­eases. Se­lye rea­soned that if stress could do this in his ex­peri­men­tal ani­mals, then per­haps it played a simi­lar role in pa­tients suf­fer­ing from these dis­or­ders.

These days, in response to stress, there has been much emphasis placed on the production of serotonin to offset stress and stress producing hormones.  Serotonin is a hormone also called 5-hydroxytryptamine, in the pineal gland, blood platelets, the digestive tract, and the brain. Serotonin acts both as a chemical messenger that transmits nerve signals between nerve cells and that causes blood vessels to narrow. Changes in the serotonin levels in the brain can alter the mood. For example, medications that affect the action of serotonin are used to treat depression.  But Serotonin is naturally replenished through sleep, rest or relaxation.  Often times, the things you find pleasurable increase your serotonin levels thus allowing your body to offset some of the stress related hormones and to keep you at safe levels of “stress.”

Next step, let’s battle stress!  Recommended is soothing, harmonic music, aromatherapy and even yoga.  And of course, massage is my personal recommendation.  In fact, I would recommend a relaxation or Swedish Massage or even a Therapeutic Massage if you’ve never had one.  Stress shouldn’t take the toll it does on today’s population, but the bottom line is, it is a huge contributor to disease and death.  Let’s say that again: Stress is a huge contributor to disease and death.  How do you plan on remedying your stress levels?  Remember, take the therapeutic approach.  It’s all about YOU.

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