Many studies show that stress symptoms and disorders are increasing. Not only are more people becoming clinically depressed, but it’s starting at an earlier age. Suicide is second only to accidents in cause of death in teenagers. The average adult weighs 30 pounds more than in 1970. Stress is a major contributor to complaints of fatigue, headaches, anxiety, insomnia, poor concentration, lack of interest in sex, digestive problems, and high blood pressure. The list goes on and on.

You can think of stress symptoms as being like debts in your STRESS ECONOMY. IF your deposits (stress management) are less than your withdrawals (stress), this creates stress overload. Sometimes symptoms are caused by too many concurrent pressures (changes) but other times by a decrease in stress management.

A man came to me complaining of recent onset of panic attacks. He seemed to have everything going for him. He was in good general health, was financially well off, and had a great marriage. BUT, he did have a high volume business in a competitive market.

My assessment of why he suddenly started having symptoms is that he had stopped his daily thirty minute jog. He had fallen while working on a home improvement project and was a walking cast. Many people who don’t have any symptoms are susceptible to one sudden change or loss pushing them over the line and out of balance.

Selye defined stress as “the wear and tear of life” or, more specifically, that which increases your Cortisol (stress hormone).

If I had to put one word between life’s stresses and illness it would be Cortisol. Cortisol is essential for life. In a crisis Cortisol “marshals your troops to the front line” – BUT at the expense of longer term concerns like your immune system and less essential functions in an emergency, like digestion and sexual functioning. Chronic stress overload suppresses your immune system. This means not only increase in susceptibility to infection but can ultimately cause cancer that may not become symptomatic and diagnosed until years later. A study of dental students found that wounds took 40% longer to heal before exams than before the semester started and that their immune function before exams was reduced by 2/3’s. Stressors can be obvious. Travel is more difficult since 9-11. We all have some level of concern about the dangers associated with terrorism. But there’s the more mundane – traffic, deadlines, tests, conflicts, health insurance – an almost endless list of external issues that are far more complex than ever in history. There are also internal stressors – attitudes and expectations that we have. We put pressure on ourselves, and we sometimes dwell on past mistakes or worry excessively about the future.

More important than stressors themselves is how much control we have. When mice were experimentally shocked until they pressed a certain lever, and this was repeated over and over, they did not show much elevation in Cortisol. But when these mice are connected to a 2nd group of mice, who don’t have the levers but get exactly the same amount of shock as the 1st group, the 2nd group (without the levers) become agitated initially, but then give up and become passive. Their Cortisol levels are extremely elevated. Being helpless is more stressing than being shocked. It also shows that chronic stress eventually leads to exhaustion and fatigue. If the 2nd group of mice is given access to levers after they have reached this last stage, they don’t even try to use them. This has been called “learned helplessness” by Seligman. In today’s highly complex society, we have much less control than our ancestors. I remember a tax law change that lowered the value of the office condo I owned by 80%. Seventeen years later, it’s still worth only 1/2 of what I paid for it. Stress!

Another factor that alters the the effect of a stressor is predictability. Studies done with primates by Coplan dramatically demonstrate this. New mothers were put in one of 3 situations relative to getting food for themselves and their babies.

Food was either easily available, or required hard work and looking, or it varied between the two conditions. The mothers in the unpredictable situation became highly stressed. Importantly, so did their babies. Most importantly, these babies grew up to become adults who had permanent vulnerability to stress.

This study has also documented the effects on the brain of the stress syndrome. They had much lower survival rates of new brain cells, especially those in rapid access memory part of the brain.

There are other factors that influence how we react to stress.

  • Genetics – animals can be bred to be overreactive to stress or to be highly resilient and less than average in their stress responses.
  • Gender (sex) – women between puberty and menopause are more reactive to stress than men. When asked to dwell on the worst experience of their life, women had 8x’s more activity in the areas of emotional processing in the brain as men doing the same exercise. After 9-11, men were angry and increased their physical activity. Women were more emotional, worried about their loved ones, and had more symptoms.

One of the most important determinants of stress reactivity is early life experience. Even in utero, the fetus is impacted by the mothers stress symptoms. Clinical depression during pregnancy increases stress vulnerability in the infant and this effect is long lasting. One of the most controllable factors in stress reactivity is clinical depression itself. Stress reactivity, more than stress itself, determines response. Early recognition and adequate treatment to full remission is protective.

Just as physical exercise can make you stronger, manageable stress makes you more resilient. Animal studies show that brief separations of babies from their mothers followed by nurturing led to resistance to adversity. This has been called “Stress Inoculation”.

The following will also help reduce stress symptoms:

1.  Get rid of unnecessary stresses

2.  Resolve ongoing disputes

3.  Be proactive

4.  Attend church or have a spiritual life

5.  Have strong relationships and social support

6.  Have a good sex life

7.  Be physically active

8.  Get at least 7 hours of quality sleep per night

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