POSTED ON FEBRUARY 1, 2012:
Loosen the Noose
If not handled, stress can cause major health issues
"Stress" is a rather generic term referring to the physical and emotional reactions people have to "stressors" -- that is, to all those things that continue to worry and hound us -- everything that keeps us up at night and makes us want to either stay in bed or move to Tahiti.
It's different for everyone, of course, because everyone experiences life and handles what it throws at them a bit differently. Some seem to thrive on a tension-filled existence with extra work and quick deadlines, all the while juggling these with family life; others go into sweats and grow new ulcers at the first sign of distress. Despite our differences, it's safe to say that we all have daily stresses and that those stresses need to be managed healthfully. Luckily, there are many well-proven methods of doing just that.
Dr. Stephen L. Sutton, a long-time family physician in Tulsa with the Omni Medical Group, said that our reactions to stress are natural and even needed. "This is our normal coping mechanism going back to the old fight-or-flight response to danger," Sutton said. A bear comes out of the woods twenty feet ahead, and the heart rate rises, you get the sweats, attention-focusing hormones surge in the brain, and everything else in the body gets you ready to survive the ordeal. Great if bears are in your path -- but we humans are so highly developed that we can have the same reactions even to such threats as work deadlines and girlfriend's (or boyfriend's) attitudes.
"We really don't have a great differentiation between different kinds of stressors," Sutton said. And of course most of our boring, day-to-day stressors (compared to bears) neither wander back into the woods nor eat you. They stick around to pester and nag so that the sweats, palpitations, belching and other unsavory symptoms can become more than annoying -- they can, unchecked, become debilitating.
What many people don't seem to realize, according to Sutton, is that unmanaged stress can eventually become harmful to one's health. If we can neither remove ourselves from continuously stressful situations nor learn how to manage the stress we have to keep, then those natural physical reactions can turn into serious conditions such as ulcers and high blood pressure. What, then, is a highly-evolved human to do?
One solution is to turn to drink. Granted, this option isn't exactly endorsed by Dr. Sutton. "It has been widely reported that one 6-ounce glass of wine a day can be good for you," and this is true, Sutton said, for relieving stress as well as maintaining heart health. "But typically those medicating with alcohol aren't just drinking the 6-ounce glass of wine; they're drinking in much larger quantities." So you don't feel as bad about work, but your liver shrivels up and falls out after your wife leaves you (not Dr. Sutton's exact words).
Others try to cope by smoking three packs of Lucky's a day or by sitting around eating triple cheeseburgers. "Many people smoke because it makes them feel relaxed," Sutton said, "but smoking also causes chemical reactions within us that can actually make some of the reactions to stressors worse." Too much coffee can do the same. Yes, moderate enjoyment of food and drink, especially in the company of friends, is one of those well-known stress reducers. The key, Sutton says, lies in relaxation, moderation and maintaining good general health.
Good physical health has long been regarded as essential in the fight against stress, with daily exercise at the top of the list of necessary activities. But even exercise has to be carried out in a balanced, moderate way. Over-exertion can be detrimental to stress-management, said Hilary Fields, Pilates and Yoga Director of Sky Fitness and Wellbeing of Tulsa. Recognizing that serious athletes who engage in rigorous daily workouts are trained to compensate for such imbalances, Fields nevertheless promotes "moderate, reasonable exercise" for the general public. "Exercise reduces stress," Fields said, "but cortisol, which is the stress hormone, is released when you exercise at a high level. Recovery is just as important a component as training when it comes to stress."
The spiritual and ethical side of life shouldn't be ignored either when examining our management of stress. "Spirituality" is a word that obviously takes on many meanings depending upon one's religious beliefs (or unbeliefs). Some serious stress arises from inner conflict between one's moral/ethical code and one's actions. The two are often not in agreement, a discrepancy which, if serious enough, leads to great ongoing stress with all of its physical and emotional results. The solution, of course, besides changing one's beliefs, would be to change behavior. Easier said than done, but the effort can be worth it. To paraphrase Aristotle, virtue is good for you.
Also generally within the spiritual, but not necessarily religious, realm lies practices which are both healthy in their own right and helpful in reducing stress: meditation (either as prayer or in one of its non-religious forms), and those types of physical activity which involve the entire person: spirit, or mind if you prefer, and body, such as yoga and Pilates. "Pilates is a mind-body exercise designed to improve strength, breath and concentration," Fields said. Also, at the end of every yoga class the student is led in the shavasana, or corpse pose, meditation and relaxation technique, when the entire body and mind are relaxed. Both of these activities, among others, are taught regularly at Sky Fitness, as well as at other centers around the city, and can be excellent methods of managing stress.
Sometimes, even after all the methods and practices have been tried, we're still left feeling overwhelmed. And sometimes we really are -- just one of those parts of life that has to be endured. But when such stress begins to seriously interfere with necessary activities, such as work or just getting out of bed, it's probable that other help might be needed.
"Often people will come into the office with other problems, such as ulcers, palpitations and headaches," not realizing that they have been caused by poorly managed stress, Sutton said. In these cases, medication is often prescribed on a short-term basis to help cope while other management methods are explored.
Our general practitioner physicians can be of great assistance in fighting stress because they are able to guide individuals to the activities best suited for their own circumstances. And as with so many things in life, what is required for the management of daily stress, and for healthy living in general, is a moderate, well-paced, balanced lifestyle made up of practices that have long-term results -- not just quick fixes.
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