Living Healthier Longer

Stress In the 21st Century: A Positive Approach

Stress happens when the mind resists what is!

What is stress?  It seems to be the “catch-all” for so many problems. Both medical and psychological conditions are attributed to this culprit. But isn’t it also what motivates us to do something? Let’s start with the definition of stress. It is anything that we perceive threatens our physical or psychological well-being.

Stressors can be real, such as a truck bearing down on us as we cross the street, or psychological as in something threatening to prevent us from having things be a certain way, usually “my” way.

Natural Evolution
Fight-or-flight is an evolutionary response to a threat and is “adaptation.” Back in prehistoric times, those who didn’t have that response were weeded out. We are “hard-wired” to respond with fight-or-flight to the appearance of a stressor. A flood of hormones is automatically released in our bodies that increases our heart rate and breathing, causes us to sweat, stops our digestion, dilates our pupils, and tenses our muscles. These responses get us ready to fight or run – catapulting us into hyperarousal, whether we like it or not.

This was a very appropriate response in the jungle, but it is not adaptive in today’s environment. Society mandates that we do neither—we cannot fight nor can we run. There is no escape from stress as it’s a natural part of living. For most people, change of any type creates some stress. We all have our daily routines, with accompanying expectations.  A change forces us to respond in a different way. That has an element of unpredictability and it the unpredictability, the challenge to our ability to handle a new situation that causes the stress.  Most people respond to change, whether positive or negative, with the same physiological responses. Losing a job or winning a million dollars in the lottery will produce the same bodily reactions.

Avoid, Escape, Confront
How we personally react from this point on is a “soft-wired” or learned response—which, in most cases, has become very automatic from years of reinforcement. The three most common responses people use are:

*Avoid by walling themselves off

*Escape by anesthetizing themselves

*Confront by understanding and controlling

Avoidance is usually not adaptive because it does not resolve the issue and the cause of the stress frequently remains or even increases.  People who avoid returning a phone call from a bill collector may find themselves with their car repossessed.

Another common response is “unbridled doing,” the momentum of which can carry us into such a state of “busy-ness” that we never quite know or understand what is happening.

Escapism is rampant, whether it be by alcohol, other drugs (both legal and illegal), getting sick, mindless watching of television, travel or vacations.

Confrontation is, of course, the ideal response. By overriding the initial fight-or-flight reaction, by switching from the automatic to an executive mode, through which we make conscious decisions and are mindful of the factors of operating, we have a chance to analyze the situation and respond appropriately.

 

Major Stressors
The major stressors in people’s lives center around: other people, the pressure of time, lack of skills, the cognizance of aging, and unhealthful lifestyles.

Coping with difficult people involves learning how not to be engaged in their agenda. To the extent that you can override your automatic flight-or-flight response is the extent to which you can let their attacks go right by you.

The lack of time is a problem of perception—we all have the same 24 hours every day. How these hours are spent is a result of our priorities. If important jobs are not getting done, it is necessary to reprioritize or gain increased skills that allow us to do tasks in less time.

The skills we possess are a direct result of our self-development. Learning new skills should be a lifetime activity, a process of continuous growth that leads to greater satisfaction with our lives and, therefore, less stress. When we are feeling stress, we must identify which skill we need to learn or improve upon.

Aging is a process that starts from the moment of conception. A life that is spent in awareness and mindfulness will seem to be long and rewarding, not spent in unbridled “busy-ness.” Many of the disabilities of aging are a result of disease and disuse, disease being primarily of improper diet, and disuse being from lack of exercise, both physical and mental.

 

Lifestyle factors create unrecognized stress in people’s lives because they are unaware of the effects of an improper diet and sedentary lifestyle. The majority of people in this country are overweight, lack much energy, feel tired all the time, sleep poorly, don’t like the way they look, may be worried about high blood pressure and cholesterol or the health problems of a loved one.

Those major stressors in people’s lives can be eliminated by exercising, following a diet that is based on plant foods and an awareness of the fact that stimulating foods such as caffeine and alcohol are very disruptive of our body’s normal wake/sleep cycles.

 

Diet, Exercise and Self-Development

Both diet and exercise help solve obesity, energy, sleep, appearance, and health problems. Daily vigorous exercise is an effective de-stressor. It dissipates the stress hormones and creates total mental and physical relaxation. It also allows the brain to go into a creative thinking mode and thereby solve problems. It floods the body with oxygen while simultaneously getting rid of carbon dioxide.

One study showed that 60% of doctor visits are said to be stress-related. Several disorders, formerly thought to be stress-related, are now known to be primarily caused by an improper diet. These include heart attacks, ulcers, high blood pressure, hives, some cancers, and depressed immune systems. Another study showed that carnivores had one half the cancer-fighting capabilities as vegetarians.

 

The Full Solution: Self-Development

Your range of responses is a direct function of your self-development. When you perceive stress, look at the stressor as a clue to where a possible inadequacy lies within you. Use stress as a motivator to broaden your skills. A “bigger” person has a wider repertoire of tools to bring to any situation.

Since stress is very closely connected to any change in people’s lives, this is an opportunity to look at what needs to be learned. If a person feels unable to handle a change with competence and confidence, the feelings of stress are the symptom of one of the above factors. As a result of learning new ways of coping with challenges j(stressors), life can get very exciting, rewarding, and satisfying.

 
Ruth E. Heidrich, Ph.D.

web pages designed by Audry Wild

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