Chronic stress has been called the ailment of our time. Chronic stress is much different than acute stress. Acute stress is our natural reaction to danger. Like other mammals, we have evolved to be constantly on guard for possible external threats. When we perceive a threat, our body reacts immediately. This is called the stress response.
For example, suppose you’re hiking in the woods and see a bear on the trail in front of you. Your body immediately responds by pumping a host of hormones into your blood. These hormones cause a number of physiological reactions. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate increase. Your cells pump out extra energy. Your sensory acuity increases. Other physiological changes take place. This stress response to a perceived threat is natural. It helps you prepare for a dangerous situation very quickly. Once the danger has passed—once the bear sees that you’re wearing a Batman T-shirt and runs away—your body returns to its normal state.
Chronic stress is different. Chronic stress can develop from continually worrying about finances, relationships, health, or countless other life issues. In today’s world, we may feel stress from when we rise in the morning until we lay our heads down at night.
It starts in the morning with finding you’re out of your favorite cereal. Then you get stuck in traffic, and arrive late to work to find the network down. All day, phone calls interrupt your work and you have to stay late to finish. You get stuck in traffic again and arrive at 8:30, dinner cold and kids irritable. Having felt stress throughout the day, you just want to go to bed.
The Toll of Chronic Stress
The problem with chronic stress is that the stress response occurs again and again, sometimes without letup. Your body doesn’t return to its normal state. The extra hormones—such as cortisol, catecholamines, and vasopressin—continue circulating in your blood, gradually doing damage.
The excess cortisol suppresses the immune system, which is so crucial to fighting off bodily threats such as dangerous bacteria and cancer.
Both cortisol and catecholamines contribute to type 2 diabetes by elevating blood glucose levels.
Catecholamines and vasopressin increase blood pressure, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.
In addition to overproducing stress hormones, psychological stress increases the activation of blood platelets, which play an important role in the evolution of atherosclerotic plaques and the arterial clotting that leads to myocardial infarctions and strokes. Research also shows that chronic stress increases the risk of asthma, gastrointestinal dis- orders, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer.
In a word, over time, chronic stress can be a killer.
Chronic stress also takes a large toll in the other three dimensions of our lives. It decreases our enjoyment of life. It interferes with our problem-solving abilities. It can impair our social relationships and detract from the spiritual dimension of our lives. Its prevalence in today’s society and the damage it does to our lives is why Practice Stress Management is a Law of Wellness. In today’s world, it is crucial to learn strategies for deal- ing successfully with chronic stress so we can stay calm in stormy seas.
Two Strategies for Managing Chronic Stress
There are two basic ways to manage stress. The first is to change the situation that causes the stress—the stressor. For example, if your job constantly drives you up the wall, one solution would be to find a less stressful job. Or if you’re anxious about the possibility of having a heart attack, you could work with your physician on a get-healthy plan to re- duce that possibility. Or course, as a doctor myself, I highly recommend this general strategy for any health issues that may concern you.
Sometimes, though, it’s not easy to change the stressor. What you can change is your reaction to stressors. There are two main ways to do this. One is to reframe the stressor. This technique rests on the idea that something is a stressor only in a perceived context. For example, being in a traffic jam is not itself a reason to become upset. But if you perceive that being stuck in traffic will make you late for a meeting, which might harm your prospects for promotion, your hormones may start pouring out. You can defuse this reaction by changing your perception of your situation. For example, you can realize it makes no sense to stress out about something you can’t control. The continuing stress re- action only jumbles your thoughts. But if you calm down, you can start thinking productively about how to counteract any negative results of being caught in the traffic.
A second way to change how you react to stressors is to find activities that promote calmness and resilience. Meditation can be an effective calming practice. You don’t have to be religious to meditate. Meditation can simply be a way to calm your mind and body. When you complete the meditation, you are more relaxed and better able to deal with situations without getting stressed-out. This is the relaxation response that Doctor Herbert Benson of Massachusetts General Hospital has studied and written about for many years. The relaxation response reverses the stress response by normalizing the body’s physiology.
Meditation is easy to learn. Daily meditation for 15 to 30 minutes in the morning can be a wonderful investment by helping you reduce stressful feelings throughout the day. Other stress-reducing practices include:
mini-meditations that take only a minute or two,
mindfulness meditation can be done while you’re walking, vacuuming the floor, or just about time when it won’t conflict with other activities, like driving.
Tai Chi, which involves graceful motion and is also a kind of meditation.
Yoga, which has a calming effect on the mind while increasing your physical dexterity and resilience and refreshing you mentally and spiritually.
There are also important non-meditation strategies that you can use to counteract stress. These include:
- good old-fashioned exercise,
- going for a walk in a park or somewhere out in nature,
- taking up a relaxing hobby such as woodworking or coin collecting.
You can find information on how to go about various meditative techniques on my website at www.rajivparti.com.