Physical activity, professional help, prayer can all reduce stress

Last updated: April 29. 2014 5:25PM - 2150 Views
By Sarah Allen sallen@civitasmedia.com

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Over the years, stress has become a common part of the modern, daily routine, despite the many and varied warnings of health care professionals, spiritual leaders, and psychologists.

“Stress is basically how (the) body reacts to unknown circumstances,” said Charles Gorman, social science professor at Southern State Community College.

“If a person perceives demands as more than they can supply … it affects the body,” said Highland District Hospital psychiatrist Dr. Ramesh Shivani.

Stress, according to Pastor Dan Lamb of the Hillsboro Bible Baptist Church, is an unavoidable part of life, but the impact it has comes from a person’s attitude.

“Life at its best is filled with stress,” he said.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes stress as “the brain’s response to any demand.” Triggers for such a response can be positive or negative; real or imagined; recurring, short-term, or long-term.

The American Psychological Association (APA) divides stress into three different categories: acute, episodic acute, and chronic.

Acute stress is short-lived and easily recognizable. It is a normal response to high-tension, non-daily events, such as a nearby deadline, a car accident, or a child’s occasional problem at school.

In contrast, episodic acute stress applies to those who “seem perpetually in the clutches of acute stress.” According to the APA, those who experience episodic acute stress are typically those with “Type A” personalities, or those, as described by cardiologists Meter Friedman and Ray Rosenman, who have an “excessive competitive drive, aggressiveness, impatience, and a harrying sense of time urgency.”

In addition, the APA says those who suffer from episodic acute stress can also be perceived as “worry warts” or “awfulizers.”

And while all types of stress can come with negativity, chronic stress is different because it lacks a sense of urgency and it seems unending. The APA describes chronic stress as “the grinding stress that wears people away day after day, year after year.”

While stressors for acute stress and episodic acute stress may be temporary, the ones for chronic stress seem inescapable. Such triggers can include poverty, dysfunctional families, an unhappy marriage, or an unfulfilling career.

For those who feel stress regularly, Shivani said, “It’s like your alarm system isn’t on the high, red light, but it’s on.”

Many people who suffer from such stress, Shivani added, feel “a constant demand that things should be different” in one or several areas of their lives.

However, stress, in its simplest form, is a survival mechanism, designed to prompt a fight or flight response.

“Our body is set up so … when presented with a threat, it shoots adrenaline into our system,” Gorman said. Momentary stress, he added, can even be life-saving.

While under stress, Gormon said, humans are capable of doing things which they normally cannot. As examples, he cited instances where people have shown unusual strength in life-or-death situations.

“It’s a wonderful thing our body can do,” he said.

In fact, according to NIMH, short-term stress can “even boost the immune system.”

“Stress is a good thing in small doses,” Gorman said.

He added that the adrenaline produced from stress can help individuals, not only in moments of danger, but also in other, more every day, high-stakes situations.

Stress can be helpful in certain acute, or temporary events, such as giving a speech, performing on stage, or taking a test.

“The extra adrenaline makes us more alert and more in-tuned to what’s going on,” he said.

In those circumstances, he said, individuals can use stress to their advantage.

Similarly, Lamb said that stress does not have to be inherently negative. He said, “Our spiritual walk affects how we handle stress.”

According to Lamb, perspective greatly affects the impact stress can have. He said that while many people expect life to be easy and smooth, it is, in fact, supposed to come with challenges. “We have the wrong mindset of what life is about,” he said.

If a person is able to adjust their attitude, then stress will become easier to handle.

Psychology Today magazine describes a study which showed similar findings. According to the article, Yale psychologist Alia Crum and her team described how a person’s mental “frame or lens” changes how stress affects him or her.

Those who have a positive stress mindset, for example, tend to feel that it makes them healthier and enhances their performance. In contrast, those who have a negative stress mindset feel that stress is something that should be “avoided at all costs,” as it drains energy and inhibits growth.

In the study, Crum found that those with a positive mindset were “better able to handle laboratory induced stress” and were “more likely to seek feedback on their performance, which in turn would allow them to grow.”

Similarly, Gorman said stress is not always accompanied by adversity.

While common stressors include divorce, death of a loved one, and bankruptcy, others are holidays, retirement, vacations, and marital reconciliation.

Stress ultimately comes from anything that brings “a lot of uncertainty and concern,” Gorman said. However, he added, “These aren’t necessarily bad things, but they can be stressors.”

Further, according to another article in Psychology Today magazine, stress can also be an important part of social bonding. The article describes a study by Markus Heinrichs and Bernadette von Dawans at the University of Freiburg in Germany which showed that “acute stress may actually lead to greater cooperative, social, and friendly behavior.”

Following stress during a time of crisis, test subjects were more likely to trust others, display trustworthy behavior, and cooperate to share profits. This was especially true, according to the study, in men.

“Our body is set up to have those heightened response systems … in moderation,” Gorman said. However, he went on, “Our body was never meant to deal with stress where it was chronic.”

And stress, once it becomes chronic, turns that same asset of the human body into a detriment.

“Our whole environment is stress-inducing,” Gorman said.

And that issue is true even locally. Lamb said Highland County is a “very good community, but it’s normal, so we have our stress here.”

Similarly, Shivani said that while stress varies from person to person, local stress is “probably the same” as anywhere else.

“With today’s lifestyle and demands … we are just running, running, running,” he said, adding that such a culture, overall, tends to have mild to moderate stress levels.

“Lots of people struggle with stress in the 21st century,” Gorman said. “There is an inordinate amount of chronic stress on the body.”

Gorman discussed an article in a 1980s issue of Time magazine, in which anxiety was described as the “disease of the 80s.” That concept, he said, continues to be true in the 21st century, and stress is a major factor contributing to that problem.

Nowadays, he said, “There’s not one or two expectations (on a person), but there’s maybe five or six or seven.”

And, according to Shivani, the first signs that stress has become dangerous include: changes in energy level, concentration, sleep and mood.

The Mayo Clinic website lists the following many and varied symptoms of stress: headache; muscle tension; chest pain; fatigue; change in sex drive; upset stomach; sleeping problems; anxiety; restlessness; lack of motivation or focus; irritability or anger; sadness or depression; overeating or underreating; outbursts; drug, alcohol, or tobacco use; and social withdraw.

When people notice those signals, he said, they need to “take a break.”

After all, while the chemicals released during stress can be life-saving in times of danger, they can also “suppress functions that aren’t needed for immediate survival,” according to the NIMH. For example, functions which are hindered by such chemicals include the immune, digestive, excretory, and reproductive systems.

If not monitored, the NIMH website states that such chronic stress can eventually “lead to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, anxiety disorder, and other illnesses.”

Further, Shivani said, psychologically, a person feels “kind of ‘keyed up.’” And those symptoms, he added, will “eventually affect work, relationships, and all of life around you.”

“It breaks us down and it turns the body against itself,” Gorman said. “We’re in a constant state of fight or flight.” And that sort of conflict, he added, causes a person’s immune system to be weaker, which might cause him or her to be sick more often.

“Stress has a lot to do with what goes on in our body,” Gorman said.

Additionally, he said the Holmes Rahe stress inventory can be used to evaluate a person’s individual stress levels at a given time.

The Holmes Rahe test lists several stressors, ranging from the most stressful (death of a spouse) to the least stressful (minor violations of the law). Each item is assigned a numerical value, with 100 being the most stressful and 11 being the least stressful.

According to Gorman, research has shown that individuals who score over 300 consistently over time have an increased likelihood of illness.

The Holmes Rahe assessment can be found on the American Institute of Stress website at www.stress.org/holmes-rahe-stress-inventory.

According to Lamb, individuals who are most likely to experience stress are “those who have nobody to help them through it.” He said that understanding stress is crucial to reducing it.

Shivani said stress management is centered on two steps. First, individuals must recognize that they are “not relaxed, not peaceful.” Then, they need to recognize the triggers of their stress. Some common ones, Shivani said, include health, finances, work, and relationships.

Once the stressor is identified, Shivani said individuals must then make a plan to manage it differently. If needed, individuals should seek professional help, especially if a person’s physical or psychological health has been affected.

Ultimately, Shivani said individuals have to recognize that life is unpredictable. “You cannot control things all the time,” he said. “Step back and see things as they are and try to avoid labeling, like ‘It’s terrible,’ ‘It’s horrible,’ ‘It’s awful. Try to be nonjudgmental.”

Shivani said it is also important for individuals to realize that they have limitations and that they do not have to fix everything.

Other initial steps an individual can take to cope with stress, according to Shivani, include relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises, yoga, tai chi, and mindful meditation.

Further, he said individuals should pursue a healthy lifestyle, and make any necessary changes to increase their overall health. For example, he said people should make sure they are not only eating nutritious meals, but that those meals are eaten regularly. He said it is important for individuals to get adequate sleep, fluids, and exercise.

Similarly, Gorman said healthful pursuits “are the very things that counteract the negatives … (They) release the good stuff that brings about healing.”

“Just simple things,” Shivani said, can impact stress management.

In addition, Shivani said that , for some stressors, individuals can find peace in surrendering and accepting a higher power.

“People who are spiritual have an extra advantage of being at peace,” Shivani said.

Similarly, Lamb said, “I think being spiritual is essential to how we handle stress.” He suggested three ways for a person to cope with stress spiritually. First, he said, a person should consciously do his or her best every day. Second, individuals should try to make good decisions, whether large or small. Finally, he said, people can “surrender to the Lord what we cannot handle ourselves.”

Prayer, he said, “completely sets a person at ease.”

Gorman added that hobbies can also help an individual feel less stressed.

“Most people don’t give themselves time to relax,” he said. “They’ve got to give the body it’s time off.”

Ultimately, according to Shivani, people must “plan for the future, but live here and now.”

“Experience and enjoy life,” he said. “Be friendly with the present.”

Sarah Allen may be reached at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @SarahAllenHTG.

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