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Front Page » May 24, 2007 » Health focus » Stress cracks
Published 2,716 days ago

Stress cracks


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By RICHARD SHAW
Sun Advocate publisher

For those under stress the morning comes too early, in fact the days may never end.

They get up out of bed, often without much sleep and a beautiful spring morning will seem like a horribly hot and burdened day before they even leave home.

Then there is work. Everything is irritating from the receptionist who is cracking her knucles to the warehouse help who are playing rap music.

Every interuption brings a higher level of anxiety. Work piled on the desk seems to grow by two inches an hour. Customers complaints and whining co-workers just add to the woes.

Quitting time comes way to late on a day like this. The drive home is filled with idiots on the road. Arriving home the dog barking from the back yard brings a loud "shut up."

The evening is filled with various irritations from that squeaky backdoor to the faucet that is dripping in the master bath.

At bed time the dark ceiling brings images of days of work, repeating themselves in the mind of the person trying to get to sleep. Once asleep, the rest is fitfull and when the rooster crows, it feels like they got no sleep at all.

Another hellish day ahead.

While not everyone who experiences high levels of stress has all these experiences, or they may differ, stress changes the way people think, the way the days goes and the way one rests.

It wasn't until the 1980's when scientists really began to understand many of the affects of stress on human beings. It had been understood to a certain extent, but causes and health affects had not really been known.

In 1983, Time Magazine called stress "The Epidemic of the Eighties," and said it was the leading health problem of the time.

But after 25 years of more enlightenment about the problem, it seems, for most of the population, it has digressed even more.

Surveys of both laymen and professionals show that over the ensueing years, the stress people feel they are under has only increased.

And for those thinking the "golden years" of retirement will relieve them of stresses, are under false illusions. The work day as it is may go away, but new stresses come into play once retirement sets in.

A 1996 Prevention Magazine survey found that almost 75 percent of people feel they have "great stress" one day a week with one out of three indicated they feel that way more than twice a week.

A similar survey done 13 years earlier marked the number at only 55 percent. Whether the change in numbers is real or just perception because of the publics awareness of stress, can't be measured. But with stress, perception is fact, because that is what causes stress.

Many primary care physicians find that when people come to them about a problem, stress is a factor in what they are finding concerning patients. Stress at work is far and away the leading source of stress for adults. But stress in children, teenagers, college students and the elderly has grown dramatically.

Besides work, people give all kinds of reasons for the stress they feel. Some cite increased crime, violence and other threats to personal safety. Some say peer pressure causes stress and can also lead to substance abuse and other unhealthy lifestyle habits. Stress often is created by social isolation and loneliness. Moral leaders point out that stress is due to the erosion of family and religious values and ties as well as the loss of other strong sources of social support.

Stress is not a physical thing, yet it often leads to physical symptoms. And it certainly more pervasive, persistent and insidious because it stems primarily from psychological rather than physical threats.

Stress is a reaction by the body to threats, whether they be physical and real or psychological or imagined.

The body changes during stress. The heart rate and blood pressure soar to increase the flow of blood to the brain. The blood sugar rises to furnish more fuel for energy to the body. Blood is taken away from the digestive tract, where it not immediately needed and is flowed to the large muscles of the arms and legs to provide more strength in combat, or greater speed in getting away from a scene of potential peril. Blood coagulation happens more quickly to prevent blood loss from lacerations or internal hemorrhage.

All these happen because stress is an ancient reaction to man's original environment. But our bodies, turned on by psychological factors, can't tell the difference between running from a saber tooth tiger or dealing with an irate customer at the front counter of our business, or having to deal with an unpleasant situation at home. People's bodies still react the same, and in modern times, there is seldom a cave to feel safe in away from the danger; in fact in many people's lives it goes on hour after hour, day after day, week after week.

With this heightened sense of danger and fear, stress has been related to many physical diseases as well. Instead of an ingrained evolutionary response to save people, it now becomes at least the partial perpetrator of a myriad of pains and maladies such as hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, ulcers, neck or low back pain or other diseases that are part of modern society.

The increased activity in the sympathetic nervous system and a large increase of adrenaline, cortisol and other stress-related hormones creates problems for the body.

Stress signals may show up as the following:

Feelings. Anxiety, Irritability, Fear, Moodiness, Embarassment
Thoughts. Self-criticism, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, forgetfulness or mental disorganization, preoccupation with the future, repetitive thoughts, fear of failure.
Behaviors. Stuttering or other speech difficulties, crying, acting impulsively, nervous laughter, "snapping": at friends, teeth grinding or jaw clenching, increased smoking, alcohol or other drug use, being prone to more accidents, increased or decreased appetite.
Physical symptoms. Tight muscles, cold or sweaty hands, headaches, back or neck problems, sleep disturbances, stomach distress, more colds and infections, fatigue, rapid breathing or pounding heart, trembling, dry mouth.

There are also different kinds of stress. For instance certain types of chronic and more insidious stress are due to loneliness, poverty, bereavement and depression. Some of these are paired with problems with immune system resistance to viral linked disorders ranging from colds to cancer.

Research is also ongoing as to the effect stress has on neurotransmitters, body enzyme systems, and metabolic activities in the body.

When all is said and done, stress could well have an affect on every organ and system in the body, and with repeated instances per day, those affects could create all kinds of up to now unknown problems with those systems.

Stress is not all bad, however. Some types of positive stress adds excitement to life, and the anticipation of events is often fun. Most people thrive under certain kinds of stress, even negative stress. So to manage stress the goal is not to eliminate it but to learn how to manage it in a way that helps the individual. Too little stress sometimes leaves people bored, so it is important for the individual to know what is the best stress level and kinds of stress they should allow in their lives. Of couse not all negative stress can be contolled. There is no single level of stress that is best for everyone. Everyone is unique and their requirements for stress levels are different. What may be distressing to one person may be a thrill to someone else. A good example is skydiving. For some the thoughts of jumping out of an airplane could make their heart stop, while others would find the experience exhilerating. But it is more than just what is happening too; it is about each persons reaction. Even if acertain event is distressing, people will often differ in their physiological and psychological responses to what is happening.

In the workplace, jobs that are meticulous, structured and stable may drive one person almost insane, while other people can't take the unstructured and free wheeling types of jobs such as being in sales. Routine for some people is stressful, while for others it is comforting.

In addition, each person has a different level of stress they can take before it affects them adversly. If a certain level of stress is causing problems for a person, they must either eliminate the stress or manage it in some manner.

And therein lies some of the rub. Removing stress sometimes means removing something from a persons life that is important to them: a loved one they have conflict with, a financial situation which would require liquidation of assets or a career that is high maintenance. The obvious answer is then to manage stress, which is almost just as hard. But how does one manage something that they have in their life that is a necessity?

That is the trick.


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