Stress has been a familiar term for decades, and the problems caused by chronic stress are legion. There is no reason to continue to put up with the rush and pressure, the demands and crises of modern life, when toxic stress is involved in most lifestyle disorders. No one is immune to stress, and despite the claims of some high-powered, competitive people, no one thrives on stress. What, then, can be done?
First, we need to get beyond the popular use of the term. When people say that they are stressed out, they mean that undue pressure makes them feel exhausted or overwhelmed. Certainly, this can be true, but stress, medically speaking, is a pressure that pushes the body out of its normal state of balance (or allostasis, and eventually homeostasis), requiring various processes like heart rate, blood pressure, and hormonal balance to kick in so that the stressor, as it is called, can be overcome. For a long time, much emphasis was placed on the stress response in the form of fight-or-flight. The point was made that unlike our remote ancestors, who needed fight-or-flight as a mechanism when under threat from predators, in modern life fight-or-flight is an evolutionary holdover that long ago outlived its usefulness.
The greatest threat now is not from fighting predators, going to war, or facing bodily harm. The greatest threat is from low-level chronic stress, which causes a milder version of the stress response. The full-blown stress response is not sustainable past a brief period, counted in fractions of an hour, at which point a rebound effect automatically occurs, causing the stressed person to feel exhausted and drowsy. This automatic shut-off valve is not present in low-level chronic stress, which can be maintained for days, months, and years, as attested to by people who stay in toxic relationships or endure stressful job conditions.
Unfortunately, the body has no resistance to low-level chronic stress, and it often passes without notice, since the symptoms tend to be invisible until a health problem results. These begin with irritability, lethargy, fatigue, and insomnia. If those signs do not cause a person to address the stressors in their life, the next stage is physical, usually beginning with headaches, worse insomnia, and digestive upset. Eventually, low-level stress will contribute to serious medical conditions, which will vary with each person.
When it comes to stress, knowledge is power. Now that you know that low-level stress is harmful long before medical symptoms appear, you can mount the first line of defense, which is good sleep. Sleep resets the stress response; insomnia keeps it going. Honestly looking at relationships and job conditions that you know are stressful is the second line of defense. Where change is called for, it must be addressed rather than treated with denial. Also, rid yourself of the notion that stress is good for you. Except for legitimate fight-or-flight dangers, it isn’t.
The long-term solution to stress requires knowledge that goes a little deeper. Three factors make stress worse: frequency, unpredictability, and loss of control. Everyone has a range of stress that fits into their comfort zone, psychologically and physically. Some people can take rejection from the opposite sex, which is stressful, and not blink an eye; other people remember their first rejection all their lives. But no matter who you are, repeated stress will overcome your innate resiliency. That is why any soldier, no matter how stalwart or brave, succumbs to battle fatigue or shell shock if they are on the front lines too long.
The real remedy for stress is to remain within your zone of adaptation. It is okay to go beyond it occasionally, like going on a scary carnival ride or attending a horror movie, where a rush of adrenaline, which is a stress hormone, is brief and under controlled conditions. But repetition, unpredictability, and loss of control are the key factors to address. Consider the following stress: You must leave your house tomorrow with only one suitcase of possessions and the inability to return for a week. If forced to do this, you would likely be incredibly stressed. But in a different light, what we have described is going on a weeklong vacation, where you leave home with only a suitcase, or two. The one scenario is stressful because it is out of your control; the vacation scenario, while it can be stressful, is much less so because you are in control.
These brief examples give you an index for staying in your zone of adaptation, meaning the amount of stress you can withstand and still return to a normal state of balance. You are outside your adaptive zone under the following conditions:
This list is necessarily general because people’s stress tolerance varies widely. Someone who gets into loud arguments with a spouse may be used to the pattern from childhood and look upon it as a healthy release of emotion, while a second person can feel devastated and retreat into silent hurt.
The scientific study of stress has yielded useful discoveries. Militaries no longer brand soldiers with PTSD as cowards. We know that a positive stress (or eustress) can be just as deleterious as a negative stress; the classic example is that it is just as stressful to win the lottery as to lose a football game. Body, mind, personality, and family history are major factors in everyone’s response to stress, and there is only so far that scientific data, however valuable, really helps.
The major finding, which unfortunately gets ignored too often, is that low-level chronic stress is the most harmful kind. That is a wake-up call for anyone who believes that living in a noisy city, enduring endless traffic snarls, working at a high-pressure job, and cutting sleep short are normal conditions of life. You may deceive yourself that this is so, but the evolutionary setup of your body’s stress response, which is millions of years old, does not agree. Adaptation is ultimately psychological. You need to consciously favor the following
Similarly, you need to consciously diminish the factors that promote stress:
As you can see, there is enough valuable information to allow you to heal the stress in your life. Medical research validates how essential stress management is to our health. What needs to change now are socially ingrained attitudes that persuade us to tolerate stress beyond what our bodies and psyches are designed for. Most people still consider stress management a nice idea that never gets taken seriously enough in practice; but nothing is more valuable if you desire lifelong wellness and well-being.
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission
Jack A. Tuszynski, Ph.D., D.Sc. Professor, Department of Physics, Adjunct Professor, Department of Oncology, Adjunct Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering
Member, The Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada
Brian J. Fertig, MDF.A.C.E. Diabetes, Endocrinology & Metabolism, Associate Professor Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Chairman, Department of Diabetes & Endocrinology Hackensack Meridian Health at JFK University Medical Center, President Diabetes & Osteoporosis Center
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