We live in a technologically advanced society full of time and labor-saving devices. So why is it that we often wish for more time and go through our days feeling worn out? Most of us don’t utilize the time wisely. We have to-do lists as long as our arms, with limited time and money to accomplish the tasks in front of us. That is actually the definition for chronic stress – the perception that demands or requirements exceed our resources and abilities. The key word there is “Perception.”
When we perceive the demands of life are exceeding what we’ve got to give, we get stressed. The stress response is a mind/body phenomenon. Once we perceive stress, we feel it and our body responds. Another name for this body response is the “fight or flight” response. This is the same response that gets activated in our nervous system when we are startled or alarmed. With chronic stress (i.e., financial strains, job stress, lack of sleep, hectic schedules, etc), our nervous system goes into mini-versions of the fight or flight response many times a day.
The toll that chronic stress takes on our lives is no little matter. Robert Sapolsky, author of “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers,” explains that chronic stress affects every system in our body. For instance, when we get upset and stressed, our brain sends signals to our adrenal glands to release glucocorticoids. These are considered “stress” hormones, which have their good uses for short term stress like natural disasters or fending off attackers. However, when activated continuously these stress hormones create havoc.
Research shows that these stress hormones disrupt our blood-sugar balance, blood pressure, immune system, and cognitive function. Left unchecked, chronic stress will put you at risk for auto-immune diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Chronic stress has been linked to increased occurrences of Type II diabetes, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, chronic pain, obesity, and even dementia.
So what are you going to do about the chronic stress in your life? Often we succumb to depression and anxiety along with addictions in our inability to cope. Sapolsky’s book, which I highly recommend, gives a pretty long list of things proven by research that help to manage and reduce our stress levels. Here are some of the more interesting ones:
- Exercise – When done regularly and with a willing spirit it is shown to reduce risk of heart disease and improve mood.
- Meditation – Developing a routine in which you quiet your mind and focus on pleasant thoughts or pray has a relaxing effect on the mind and body.
- Control – The more uncontrollable we perceive our circumstance, the higher our stress. When we can gain a sense of control over our lives we feel better. This control can be gained through control over your schedule, ore developing mastery of some skill or hobby. Control can also be gained by just deciding to do something about your problem. Research shows that depressed people can start to feel better just because they scheduled an appointment to see a therapist!
- Social support – the reason AA and other support groups help is that they provide social support. If you are stressed, you will feel even more stressed when isolated. We do best when we are able to find an accepting, supportive group in which we can confide.
These are doable suggestions. They work. Everyone has stress, and everyone has times they get overwhelmed. The people who thrive and survive are ones who do something proactive about their stress. If you feel overwhelmed, I suggest you try at least two of the activities listed above.