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Did you know 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’ve seen in my clinic who don’t recognise that stress is a problem in their life. Others may develop signs and symptoms of an anxiety or panic attack, and brush it off as something else.
We are all human beings who are the same inside, and who 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 look at this common scenario, for example, flying. The following is an actual case. I have changed the patient’s name. The captain of a large jet airliner had just switched off the seat belt sign when Susan’s heart raced. She was getting palpitations and sweaty palms and even feeling a bit of sickness in her tummy. Even deciding to only fly business class from now on made no difference.
Susan felt awful that day on 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 and gave her the all clear. He said: “Susan, you are a picture of health and look years younger than your actual age of 45”.
But that morning on the plane, her skin felt prickly, and she knew something just wasn’t right, and this freaked 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 someone had wrapped a tight bandage around her whole upper body. What Susan didn’t know was that she was experiencing her first anxiety or panic attack.
Was Susan scared of flying?, not really, it was because of the chronic low-grade stress Susan had been experiencing for many years, and the panic attack occurred because of 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 up the corporate ladder. Being a successful career woman, Susan spent over 100 hours a week telling powerful and corporate 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 several 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 feel 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 experience a heart attack, Susan went back to her doctor. After performing an ECG and doing all the heart checks, he told her she was suffering from stress-induced breathing problems.
Susan is one of those patients who has an addiction to stress, and it was 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 far too accessible. Those corporates in particular who wear pressure and strain as a badge of honour, are driven, whether consciously or subconsciously, to seek stressful situations.
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Dr. James Wilson, an expert on adrenal fatigue, once told me that some folk actually need to go skydiving or bungy jumping just to feel great, because they have become so addicted to that rush of adrenalin in their lives. We live in an age when faster, quicker and instant has become the norm. Nobody wants to wait for anything anymore, have you noticed?
When we order a coffee or meal, we expect instantaneous service. And with emails: “Hey, didn’t you get my email this morning? You haven’t replied to it yet” is normal 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! How’s your wheel going?
“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. “Some people 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 recover from stressful events.
I have found that the fundamental 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. “Eventually, 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 to our health. In the old days, they used to talk of a nervous breakdown. Today we 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 as 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.
With large carnivores, this stress system is second to none. But while our stressors today are more regular, and don’t force us to dive for cover, our bodies haven’t really developed 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 many other problems.
This is the friendly 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.
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 felt 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 showing,” says stress management expert Meiron Lees.
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 difficulties. “Every day, write 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.
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.
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 custom made fitness regime.
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 focus on the minor mistakes you made, rather than on your major achievements?
If so, it might catch you in the perfectionist trap. “Some women feel that they have to be perfect in everything they do at work. They want 100% 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 avoid 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 use 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 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.
Article last Update: 9 June 2011