All humans have a personal relationship with stress, but most of us don’t understand how prolonged stress can damage our bodies to the point of death. Do you remember watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on TV when you were a kid? Almost every episode involved some critter getting into trouble and ultimately facing the fight of their life or running like the dickens to get away. When the deer escaped, her stress response shut down.
Humans are designed with the same kind of fight or flight system, which was meant to be a momentary event until we are out of harm’s way. It’s not meant for the long haul. Our bodies go through amazing changes when we are in tremendous fear. The blood pressure goes up, while our immune system goes down, the good cholesterol is decreased while the bad goes up and we get a power packed surge of adrenaline that gives us the feeling we can handle anything.
The problem I am seeing more often is that many of us can’t seem to find our “off” switch, and we have a strong tendency to switch on our fight or flight system for only psychological reasons. Thinking about global warming, job security, traffic, politics, impressing other people, family problems and death, we turn on the same stress response.
The important difference is that we’re not doing it for real physical reasons and we’re doing it non-stop. When we don’t turn off our stress reaction, we unwittingly do harm by overexposing ourselves to hormones that are only meant to kick in when we are in dire straits. That’s one of the reasons why so many Americans have “fuzzy brain,” weight gain, heart and stomach problems and suffer from anxiety and depression.
So, if we witness a small child running toward traffic, this beautifully designed alert system will kick into high gear and move us into taking fast action now! The not-so-wonderful thing is that a large percentage of illnesses are caused by mental and emotional stress, and we, as a society, are no longer experiencing fearful thoughts “every now and then.” Many of us are getting sicker and sicker because we are living in constant fear and struggling with uncontrollable worry and doubt. We’re wearing ourselves out.
I recently visited the National Institute of Mental Health website where I read that “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in America.” In essence, 19 million people suffer from mental illnesses that involve irrational fear responses. These disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Most stress, anxiety and depression is caused by imaginary challenges or by falsely believing that we have no choice or possibility to succeed or win, to be healed or be financially independent or create and keep private or professional relationships. Did you know that most healthy successful, strong people do not have fewer challenges in life? They simply have learned how to deal with the daily tasks and challenges more effectively, so they don’t even create stress. If you talk with highly successful folks, many will tell you that they actually enjoy overcoming challenges and difficult tasks in life and to do this on a daily basis.
You may want to try some of these ideas:
• Our thoughts can create illness and if they are strong enough to make us sick, then they are strong enough to make us healthy. Pay attention to what you allow in your mind. Keep it positive.
• Talk about your fears with someone you trust as this will help make the problem appear smaller and more manageable.
• Develop an understanding of what you’re afraid of and this will help you to begin to learn how to erase it.
• If you’re afraid to try something, start working in small steps. When you become familiar with a scary thing slowly, it can be more manageable.
• Stop trying to figure out why you’re afraid. Knowing why you developed a particular fear probably won’t help you in overcoming it and may actually delay your progress.
• Notice if you hold your breath. Sounds funny, but good, regular breathing is vital.
• Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep. Your body and mind require rest.
Prolonged stress negatively impacts our performance. Learn to take control of your thoughts, emotions, and surroundings and how you deal with problems. If you want a longer, healthier life full of success, learning to manage your stress is of paramount importance. My wish for you is a life of balance, with time for work and relaxation and fun.
A staff member at the Bay Pines VA Hospital from 2006-2013, Dina Meitner, LCSW, is currently in private practice at 2081 Indian Rocks Road.