Managing Your Stress or Managing To Stress?
Did you know that chronic low-grade stress is far worse for your health than smoking a packet of cigarettes a day and drinking excessive alcohol? It is amazing how many patients I have seen in my naturopathic practice who just don’t recognise that they actually are stressed or develop the signs and symptoms of an anxiety or panic attack, and tend to brush it off as something else. We are all human beings who are built the same inside and are all subject to various and multiple stress patterns in our lives. It is possible to recognise these patterns and to take action before we succumb to the more insidious pattern of adrenal fatigue, the 21st century stress syndrome.
Let’s take a look at this common scenario for example – flying. The following is a real case, just the name has been changed. The captain of a large jet airliner had just switched off the seat belt sign when Susan’s heart started to race, she was getting palpitations and sweaty palms and even feeling a tiny bit of sickness in her tummy. Even deciding to only fly business class from now on made no difference, Susan felt awful that day in the plane and just couldn’t understand why. After all, her doctor did a thorough medical and all the tests only weeks ago for insurance purposes and gave her the “all clear”. He said: “Susan, you are a picture of health and look years younger than your real age of 45”.
But that morning in the plane, her skin felt prickly and she became aware that something just wasn’t right, and this started to freak her out. Taking a deep breath didn’t help, and her chest simply wouldn’t expand and felt tight as a drum. Even though she tried to take slow and deep breaths, her chest felt like a tight bandage was wrapped right around her whole upper body. What Susan didn’t know is that she was experiencing her first anxiety or panic attack.
Was Susan scared of flying?, not at all, it was because of the chronic low-grade stress Susan had been living under for many years, and the panic attack was induced now by an extra shot of adrenalin (epinephrine) and cortisol, the two main stress hormones, which were effecting her small frame.
Susan had been working very hard for over ten years in the banking and finance sector, and had climbed far up the corporate ladder. Being a very successful career woman, Susan spent more than 100 hours a week telling powerful and wealthy clients how to improve their bottom line. “Now that I think back, I was setting totally unrealistic expectations in my work, but I thrived on the challenge of meeting them,” she reveals. “The stress of the job was thrilling. I loved it.” But all this success came at a cost: a divorce last year, a major promotion at work and the death or her mother about 6 months ago.
But as Susan made her way from Auckland to Los Angeles that day – to inform employees they were being made redundant – her body finally caught the attention of her mind. “Eric, it was really silly because I didn’t even think I was stressed,” she says. Telling herself she was fine, Susan recovered from her airborne panic attack. But the episodes that followed made it harder to ignore, and she had noticed that coffee would often help to induce these episodes. Years later, believing she may be having a heart attack, Susan finally went back to her doctor. After performing an ECG and doing all the necessary heart checks, told her she was suffering from stress-induced breathing problems.
Susan is one of those patients who actually has an addiction to stress, and it was ever so slowly killing her. Like anger, fear, anxiety, love, and other emotional states, stress can mean different things to different people. But the single constant in today’s fast-paced world is the status that stress endows on its owner. We live in a society today that encourages multi-tasking and working around the clock, computers, electronic devices such as mobile telephone technology are making people TOO accessible at times. Those corporates in particular who wear pressure and strain as a badge of honour are driven, whether consciously or subconsciously, to actually seek out stressful situations.
Adrenal Fueled Activities Are Addictive
Dr. James Wilson, the world’s authority on adrenal fatigue, once told me that some folk actually need to go sky diving or bungy jumping just to feel great, because they have become so addicted to that rush of adrenalin in their lives. We live today in times when faster, quicker and instant has become the norm. Nobody wants to wait for anything anymore, have you noticed? When we are seated for a coffee or a meal, we expext instantaneous service. And with emails: “Hey, didn’t you get my email this morning? You haven’t replied to it yet” is nomal today, when years ago it was: “Did you get my fax a few days ago?” We need to slow down a little, we have literally become a society of rats on treadmills with no end to the wheel turning. And the unfortunate thing today is that many busy people aren’t even aware they are on that wheel themselves.
“People addicted to stress pursue it because they believe it to be good for them, but they ignore the increasing cost,” points out psychiatrist Dr Jeffrey Streimer.
Like many bad habits, initially stress feels good. “There is no doubt that some people do enjoy the adrenaline rush that is associated with stressful situations,” says Dr Sarah Edelman, Australian Psychological Society spokesperson and author of “Change Your Thinking”. “And stress can be good for us.” The healthy type of tension called “eustress” or otherwise known as good stress, can be a real motivator. It makes us more alert and pushes us to achieve. After all, people who have too little of it in their lives can become bored and unproductive. It is when we experience constant “distress” that our bodies come under fire, and particularly the adrenal glands, the glands which help us to recover from stressful events.
I have found that the main problem occurs when people, like Susan, come to see stress as a “normal way of life”. And things don’t really become obvious to a stress junkie until stress gets out of control, and then it can become harmful – like a panic attack. “Sooner or later, people reach a tipping point and instead of becoming stretched in their lives, they become more strained. Instead of being a motivator, stress does the opposite and a person can become unproductive,” says Meiron Lees, author of D-Stress: “Building Resilience In Challenging Times”. In short, chronic stress is not only damaging to our minds, it also becomes very detrimental detrimental to our health. In the old days, they used to talk of a nervous breakdown, today we tend to use the term burnout. Are you heading for burnout?
Basically, the stress of deadlines and traffic jams and mobile phone ringing evokes the same physiological reaction that occurred thousands of years ago when anxiety came in the form of being chased by a rather large wild animal. The body responds to these challenging situations by releasing adrenaline into the blood, making your heart beat faster and supplying blood to the muscles. Then, cortisol wears away at the body’s fat and energy stores, releasing extra glucose to fuel the brain and body. Finally, the body slows down the immune and digestive systems so it can preserve energy.
When it comes to large carnivores, this stress system is second to none. But while our stressors today are more regular and don’t tend to force us to dive for cover, our bodies haven’t really evolved or quite caught up. “Our body treats psychological stress the same way it treats physical stress and releases the same response,” says biological scientist Dr Sinan Ali. So remember this, while your mind might panic over a deadline, your body is preparing to do battle! When that fight doesn’t occur, all those stress hormones hang around in the body with nothing actually to fight. And that’s when stress becomes responsible for conditions such as obesity, pain and inflammation, poor immunity, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, insomnia, and skin and digestive problems and a whole host of other problems.
The Two Main Types Of Stress
Eustress – This is the good type, which helps to motivate you to achieve your goals and leaves you feeling challenged but in control. Eustress can be as simple as fronting up to work every day, keeping appointment times, managing your kids and family life or planning & organising your life in general.
Distress – This is the bad type which leaves you anxious, unsettled and unmotivated. So, how do you know if your good stress is turning bad? “Look for the warning signs,” says psychologist Dr Sarah Edelman. If you start to feel shaky, tense, tight in the chest, irritable or are having problems sleeping, are getting grumpy with your kids and husband, then the stress is getting too much for you to handle. “When you feel out of control, stress usually becomes a problem and the cracks are starting to show,” says stress management expert Meiron Lees.
Dealing Stress At Any Age
In Your 20’s
The Top Tensions: Trying to establish your career and climbing that corporate ladder. Forming a meaningful relationship and maybe even a marriage.
Stress Solution: Stress management expert custom Lees says that during your 20s you need to build the confidence to handle life’s ups and downs. “Every day, write down something that went well, no matter how small. It will remind you of your achievements.” Work on a regular exercise plan, it will set you up for life and focus on eating the right foods. These are good habits to cultivate earlier on. As you sow shall you reap, it all comes back to you later in life.
In Your 30s
The Top Tensions: Managing a career with the challenges of being a parent and/or partner.
Stress Solutions: Say no, don’t load up your plate too much. “Realise that although society says you can do everything, your body says you can’t. Decide what’s important in your life and make sure your time is being devoted to that,” says Lees. For anything else, learn to delegate or just don’t go there.
In Your 40s
The Top Tensions: Trying to create wealth and establishing a quality of life by balancing work and play.
Stress Solutions: Have a plan. Whether you want an investment property or a strong, healthy body, work out steps to get there. Try outsourcing typical sources of anxiety by seeing a financial planner to sort out your money woes, or a personal trainer to help you design a custum made fitness regime.
What’s Your Stress Type?
Everything had to be just right. You may know somebody like this, or even be like this yourself. Do you ever feel that no matter how much you accomplish, it’s just isn’t good enough? That regardless of how much you achieve, you could do more? Do you find yourself focusing on the minor mistakes you made, rather than your major achievements?
If so, you might just be caught in the perfectionist trap. “Some women feel that they have to be perfect in everything they do at work. They want 100%l of their work and all of their ideas to be absolutely brilliant,” reports Carol Deutsch, a communications consultant in New York. Particularly in a new job, Deutsch adds, women often hold themselves up to an impossibly high standard of performance.
There’s nothing like a looming deadline to get your heart racing. It’s a stressor most of us will experience, but some people put themselves under this pressure daily by procrastinating and putting off the inevitable. Psychologist Dr Sarah Edelman explains that if someone is constantly doing this, then rather than simply delaying an unpleasant task, they might be avoiding their job and need to rethink their career, or be insecure about their abilities. By procrastinating, they can blame the results of the task on their lack of effort, not their capabilities.
If putting our bodies through chronic stress is a bad thing, then why do we do it? “There is the idea that to be successful means you have to work long hours and always be incredibly busy,” says Lees. Many workers associate being stressed with being effective, a misconception reinforced by bosses who commend them for their incredible efforts. These days, being under stress is almost a bragging point on par with comparing the pay cheques and fitness levels of your friends!
You might think you’re complaining about work, but you may be using stress to air personal emotions that are a lot trickier to address. Some people deliberately look for stressful situations that will allow them to release pent-up emotions caused by other aspects of their life, and those closest to them often get it in the neck. “People can seek out aggression to help them feel in control,” says Dr Streimer. “They create stressful events to discharge any frustrations they have.” And being “too stressed” to deal with anything else is the perfect way to avoid what’s really bothering you – the underlying stuff you would rather not deal with.
Your 6-Step Stress Relief Plan
- The first step is admitting that stress does play a role in your life and is becoming a problem. Ask yourself why you’re stressing out and whether it’s helping the situation. Doing this can give you some much-needed perspective. This is what often tips up heavy drinkers, they never admit they have the problem and that others have a problem with their drinking!
- Next, minimise any unnecessary stress in your life right now. If you’re a worrier, don’t panic over your work, your weight and the well-being of your family and friends. Instead, choose the most important thing to contemplate right this minute. If you procrastinate, try this technique: when tackling a task, work for 25 minutes, then break for five. Repeat this four times then take a longer break. Thinking you only need to concentrate for a short time will help you stay much more motivated.
- Work on reversing the negative effects stress has on the body today. The easiest, cheapest way to do that is to exercise one way or another, and I love walking – one study found that just 18 minutes of walking three times a week lowers cortisol levels by 15 per cent. “Not only does physical activity reduce hormone levels caused by stress, minimising their negative impacts, but it also disrupts your mind, which can distract you from stress, too,” says Dr Ali.
- Look at what you eat every day – your diet. The body reacts to the foods you consume the same way it does when you worry about making your mortgage repayments. It’s a stressor that can raise your cortisol. You may find my article called Eating for Fatigue useful reading here, as well as the Adrenal Fatigue Diet.
- The art of relaxation – are you getting enough? It is important to balance work and play, make sure you take time out to relax every day and ensure you get plenty of sleep. Dr. Wilson recommends that you have a quiet period of at least 15 to 20 minutes of afternoon relaxation to help build adrenal health. His book entitled Adrenal fatigue, The 21st Century Stress Syndrome has much useful information with regard to relaxation.
- The Adrenal Fatigue Program of nutritional supplementation is the most targeted and specific program designed to get you up and running fast. I have personally used Dr. Wilson’s Adrenal Fatigue Recovery Program in my clinic with over 1,700 patients in the past several years and can vouch for its clinical efficacy.
Article last Update: 9 June 2011
- Change Your Thinking, Dr. Sarah Edelman PhD. Paperback, 320 pages, 2nd Revised edition Edition Published: 2006
- D-Stress, Building Resilience In Challenging Times : 7 Simple Techniques To Deal With Stress. Meiron Lees
Paperback, Published: October 2008
- 10 Simple Solutions to Stress: How to Tame Tension and Start Enjoying Your Life. Claire Wheeler PhD. Paperback: 192 pages, Publisher: New Harbinger Publications; 1st edition (February 2007)
- Adrenal Fatigue, The 2st Century Stress Syndrome. Dr. James L. Wilson, N.D., D.C., PhD. Paperback: 362 pages, Publisher: Smart Publications. First Edition 2001.