Managing Stress for Well-Being

by Jeffrey Gero, PhD

Health and wellness extend beyond the physical body to encompass the mind and spirit. And in today’s fast-paced world, where stress is a constant companion in many people’s lives, finding time to relieve stress and live a balanced life is the key to true health and well-being.

Today we live in a society that equates relaxation with wasting time. Actually, our productivity and health improve when we periodically relax, release stress and become centered, because then we are in control of ourselves rather than allowing stress to control us.

Stress is any strain or force on the body or mind; a power that deforms the shape of the body subjected to it. It is a dis-harmony or instability of a once-balanced state. Dr. Hans Selye, the most renowned authority and researcher on stress, defines it simply as the rate of wear and tear on the body.

When we’re stressed, specific bodily responses occur. An impulse is relayed to the brain, sending signals to the glands and organs to secrete hormones into the bloodstream. Immediately, muscles tense, breath rate increases, heartbeat quickens, blood pressure rises and blood is shunted from the skin and organs to the muscles, while the brain and digestive system are disrupted. We are prepared to respond to the stressor. This preparation for danger is the “fight or flight response,” a term coined by Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon in the 1930s.

The fight or flight response is an instinctual response, a survival mechanism which enabled us to survive as a species. However, today such a response is often inappropriate, as our bodies tend to react as if our lives are being threatened when they are not. Today’s threats are mainly emotional rather than physical, yet we habitually respond via the fight or flight response as if we are in constant danger. Deadlines, unrealistic self-expectations, job and home pressure, traffic, unpaid bills and the rapid, subtle stresses of modern times create prolonged stress, which can cause both psychological and physical health problems.

Prolonged stress interferes with the body’s natural ability to return to homeostasis (a balanced state). Our bodies have a mechanism for reacting to stress, but then need to return to a balanced state to maintain optimum health. Normally, after a stressful event, the body automatically returns to homeostasis.

However, with almost everyone’s anxiety level elevated because of the stressful times we live in, many of us suffer from prolonged stress and its consequences. As many as 80 percent of Americans are stressed about their personal finances and the economy,?according to the American Psychological Association’s annual survey, and to add insult to injury, we have road rage, desk rage, gone postal and a new term called “techno-stress,” which is the incessant intensification and infusion of new information.

A hundred years ago, there were no jet planes, hardly any automobiles, certainly no cell phones, Blackberry’s, computers, internet or fax machines. More than 80 percent of the world’s technological inventions have occurred since 1900, and more information was produced in the 30 years from 1965-1995 than was produced in the entire 5,000-year period from 300 BC to 1965. We have experienced more change in the past 20 years than the world encountered in the previous 2,000 years. Never before in our history have our lives changed so rapidly.

“It’s difficult to think of any disease in which stress cannot play an aggravating or causative role,” says Paul Rosch MD, president of the American Institute of Stress. The World Health Organization described stress as a worldwide epidemic, while a United Nations report called job stress, “the disease of the century.” Even more, the cost of uncontrolled stress to American business exceeds $300 billion each year.

Stress can be very subtle and builds up like the steam in a pressure cooker. It’s extremely important to be aware of one’s stress and continually release it, letting out some of the steam. Countless physical and emotional problems result from prolonged stress. Remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. As Louis Pasteur stated, disease is not caused by bacteria alone, but the condition of the host’s body. What’s more, according to the American Academy of Family Practice, two-thirds of the people who visit family doctors suffer from stress-related illness.

In one pioneering study, researchers have shown that chronic stress speeds up the shriveling of the tips of the bundles of genes inside the cells. This not only shortens the life span of the cells, but also deteriorates them, thus establishing a direct link between stress and aging. Symptoms from this stress-related accelerated aging emerge in the form of skin wrinkles, weakened muscles, diminishing hearing and eyesight, cognitive processes and even organ failure.

Most of the stress we deal with today is self-generated by our mind in the form of worry, anger, fear of the future, thoughts of negative experiences, relationship problems, money problems, traffic and on and on. By realizing that our thoughts create the stress response, we can develop awareness and learn not to focus on and be controlled by stress-producing thoughts. We can also make the time each day to relax, let go of stress, lighten up, feel peaceful and create the balance we need in our lives.

Recognizing what triggers the stress response and planning a coping strategy will allow you to regain control of your well-being and not allow situations to take away your power and peace. Listening to music or an audio book and deep breathing can help to relieve stress.

Brain research is beginning to produce concrete evidence for something that Buddhist practitioners of meditation have maintained for centuries: Mental discipline and meditative practice can change the workings of the brain and allow people to achieve different levels of awareness.

Meditation improves well-being by bringing the brainwave pattern into an alpha state, a level of consciousness that promotes the healing state.

Researchers have found that meditation, a deep relaxation technique, benefits the body mind and spirit by lowering blood pressure, drug dependency, cholesterol, stress and anxiety levels, risk of stroke and heart disease, asthma and other psychosomatic diseases, while increasing resilience, happiness, sleep quality, brain hemisphere synchronicity, creativity, alertness, self-awareness, self-acceptance and a sense of spirituality and meaning.

Spend some time each day not thinking. Take a break from your thoughts, responsibilities, problems and merge into the silence. The soul speaks from the silence, which releases us from the bondage of the past and all worldly distractions.

A certain amount of stress can be beneficial. It’s only when stress becomes overwhelming that we have to compensate by practicing those things that create stress release. Stress management is not a luxury; it’s a necessity for maintaining good health and quality of life.

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