IS STRESS AFFECTING YOUR HEALTH?

by

Donald A. Cadogan, Ph.D.

 

Psychological discomfort, inner tension or stress, as it is commonly called, usually results from at least three broad situations in our lives.  These are: when we experience a threat to either our personal security or self-esteem, when we are frustrated in our efforts to obtain our goals, and when life changes occur that require a personal adjustment of some kind.  Thus, whenever we feel annoyed, powerless or insecure we normally experience stress.

As we all know, acute or short periods of stress are unavoidable in our everyday lives.  Such periods of stress can actually be positive in that they point to trouble spots that need our attention.  This can motivate us to action.  And fortunately, if not too frequent, acute stress can actually improve our health by providing a boost to our immune system.

However, scientists tell us that longstanding or chronic emotional stress can be dangerous.  It has long been known that high levels of inner tension can destroy our health.  But we now know that physical damage can result even from low levels of stress if the pressure occurs over a long period of time.  Scientists tell us that such longstanding chronic stress can radically shorten our lives.  It can produce premature aging and has been linked to a variety of disabling and sometimes deadly illnesses such as heart disease, bronchial asthma, ulcers and even cancer.  Each year more research findings are published pointing to chronic stress as a major source of immune system deficiencies.  Thus, stress not only causes illness in its own right, but also reduces our body’s ability to fight off other diseases. Stress, in other words, can kill.

Again, as we all know, stress is inevitable in our modern world with its constant change, frequent intrusions and ongoing threats of violence.  However, some people handle life's duress better than others and are able to minimize its damaging effects. .  Usually, this is because they have developed more effective coping skills and strategies.  Although some people are naturally more stress resistant due to inherited biological influences, most stress immune people seem to have learned their abilities.  In fact, most of us are capable of learning to diminish the destructive consequences of our chronic or excessively stressful experiences.

One important step we can take in learning to cope with stress is to develop sensitivity to the limits of our endurance.  In other words, we must know ourselves and resist taking on more than we can handle.  To do this we must be willing to pay attention to the early warning sighs of excessive stress, such as frequent headaches, back pain, insomnia, high blood pressure, breathing difficulties and other unpleasant physical and psychological experiences.

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Here is a quiz to aid you in determining your present level of stress and to help you increase your awareness of the potential stressors in your life.  The quiz also offers nine remedies for stress that are usually effective.

As you take the quiz you may find that more than one answer in each question applies to you.  However, please choose the one that is most true or true most of the time.

It should be noted that the quiz is not intended to be definitive, but more to be used as a quick check and as a tool for learning about this disabling psycho-physiological event known as stress. 

 

EMOTIONAL STRESS QUIZ

Circle a, b, or c on each question before turning to the answers.

1. My job is usually:

a)      Interesting.

b)      Absorbing.

c)      Boring.

2. When I feel tension I usually:

a)      Ignore it.

b)      Take a break.

c)      Drink or smoke.

3. When I go to bed I usually:

a)      Fall right to sleep.

b)      Read before sleeping.

c)      Lay awake thinking.

4. My life is usually:

a)      Orderly.

b)      Exciting.

c)      Filled with deadlines.

5. On weekends I usually:

a)      Relax at home.

b)      Go places.

c)      Have difficulty relaxing.

6. Frequently I:

a)      Feel good.

b)      Do enjoyable things.

c)      Get Headaches.

7. When not working I often:

a)      Relax with television.

b)      Relax with exercise or a hobby.

c)      Relax with a drink.

8. When driving I usually:

a)      Keep my speed close to the speed limit.

b)      Stop for rest when I need it.

c)      Get angry with other drivers.

9. When meeting new people I usually:

a)      Feel relaxed.

b)      Feel a little nervous, but soon get over it.

c)      Relax with a drink.

10. When I get angry I usually:

a)      Get over it soon.

b)      Talk about it.

c)      Stay angry for a long time.

11. Usually I am:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

a)      Comfortable with areas of my life not under my control.                                                                                                                                                    

b)      Basically in control of my life.

c)      Not in control of many important aspects of my life.

12. When things do not go my way I:

a)      Usually don’t worry about it.

b)      Learn from it.

c)      Tend to blame.

13. I:

a)      Am able to laugh at myself.

b)      Am able to laugh at my difficulties.

c)      Recognize life as very serious.

14.  I:

a)      Am happy there are few changes in my life.

b)      Make occasional changes, but usually at my discretion.

d)      Have had at least one major life change recently.

15.  I:

a)      Never smoked.

b)      Used to smoke.

c)      Am trying to quit smoking.

 

The "a" answers reflect a quiescent, relaxed personality style. This is the kind of person who is generally content with the way things are and lives the kind of life he or she would consider comfortable.  If you made many "a" choices you probably cope well with the stressors in your life by diluting or discounting them with your easygoing manner. This style may be natural to you or you may have learned over time to relax and take life less seriously.  You probably have a good sense of humor and employ one of the oldest and best-known devices for reducing stress – laughter.  The only drawbacks to this trait are the possible tendency to deny or overlook problems that need attention and a tendency to develop a life style that is too sedentary.  However, if you answered many “a” answers, but lead a reasonably active life you are probable in good physical health due both to the benefits of physical activity and to the life enhancing effects of your good mental attitude.

The "b" answers indicate a more active, though relaxed personality style. A high score here suggests you probably turn to an activity to reduce your stress, or counter negative stress (a boring job) with positive stress (a hobby).  You also use humor to reduce stress and usually find it very effective.  But you also attempt to learn from the difficulties you get yourself into, and you try not to repeat your mistakes.  You probably use exercise in some form to relieve internal pressures.  If so, you are most likely in good physical health.  This is because your combination of exercise and good mental attitude has powerful restorative effects and leaves you resistant to most common ailments.  Nine or more “b” answers would place you in this category.

The "c" answers are indicative of negative life stress or inadequate coping skills. Thus, the more "c" choices you made, the greater your stress level. If you made twelve or more "c" choices your health may be at risk.   Such a high score suggests you have probably developed poor coping techniques and may be actually adding to you existing difficulties by your ineffective or aggravating stress management patterns.  If so, it is vital that you learn how to reduce your inner tension.  Toward this end, it is important for you to know that changes in routine or life circumstances are stressful for most people.  And this is especially so if the changes are frequent and intrusive, or that require major readjustments. Often there is little we can do to prevent these changes, such as when a death occurs in our family or among our friends, or if we lose our job due to company difficulties.  And, as everyone knows who drives in heavy traffic to work or competes in the marketplace for a livelihood, disruptions to our plans, as well as affronts to our security or self-esteem are difficult to avoid in modern life.  However the following suggestions can help you reduce or eliminate the harmful effects of these stressful events.

1. Eat properly with balanced nutritious meals.  Life’s difficulties tend to place an extra drain on our body’s resources.  It is important, therefore, to maintain a well-nourished physical condition.  This is really our first line of defense against the potentially harmful effects of stress.  But people under stress are unfortunately prone to eat high carbohydrate, “comfort” foods or fatty fast foods.

2. Exercise properly.  Stressful events cause the body to secrete a variety of neurohormones such as adrenalin or cortisol. .  These substances are designed by nature to stimulate and maximize our physical abilities and produce in us a “fight or flight” state of readiness.  Chronic infusion of these chemicals is potentially damaging to us both mentally and physically.  Physical exercise, however, tends to burn off these substances and helps our bodies return to a more balanced state.  This is one of the reasons we often feel good after a vigorous workout.

It should be noted that people with panic disorder sometimes feel worse when they exercise during a panic attack.  This is because lactic acid, which is produced by muscle use, tends to aggravate panicky feelings.  If you suffer from panic disorder it is best to exercise moderately on a regular schedule, but let yourself relax using controlled breathing techniques during a panic attack.

3. Do not smoke.  Smoking itself, despite the momentary sense of calm it produces, puts stress on the body.  Thus, it adds to the negative impact of life’s troublesome events.  And, unfortunately, a habit of smoking when we are under stress leads us to smoke more at the very time we are most vulnerable to its toxic effects.

4. Drink only moderately if at all.  There have been a number of reports indicating that drinking one or two alcoholic beverage a day can have a beneficial influence on our cardiovascular system.  But excessive alcohol use has the reverse effect.  Heart attacks are a primary killer of people who abuse this drug. And, therefore, just like smoking, drinking under stress is a form of coping behavior that can cause as much or more harm to the body as that produced by our emotional tension.

5. Get sufficient sleep.  Scientists continue to learn of the vital role played by sleep in our overall heath.  Therefore, in order to make the best use of our mental and physical resources when under stress we must have adequate sleep.  Unfortunately, sleep is its most elusive during times of tension and pressure.  This is largely because we tend to mull over disturbing thoughts at night when we are under stress.  But such thoughts at bedtime decrease our ability to sleep and, thus, rob the body of one of its most important recuperative experiences.

If you are having trouble sleeping, however there are a number of effective sleep induction techniques you can use including the use of special tape recordings.  One method is simply to utilize the relaxation method discussed next, but do so while you are lying in bed.  Most relaxation procedures help create the mental and physical conditions that are necessary for achieving sleep.

6. Learn relaxation techniques.  The value of relaxation techniques in stress reduction programs lies in their ability to counteract the destructive effects of chronic or ongoing psychological pressure.  By providing stress free periods during the day, they give our bodies a chance to recuperate sufficiently so as to better withstand tension when, or if, it returns.

One of the methods I like best is a form of passive meditation that has been adapted from Transcendental Meditation by Herbert Benson.  He calls it the “Relaxation Response”.  With this procedure you simply sit down, close your eyes and repeat an innocuous sound like “om” or “em” silently in your mind at the end of each breath.  Thoughts that intrude can be disregarded by passively staying with the nonsense sound and its relaxing rhythm.  Allow yourself to feel the sensation of floating that soon develops.  After about twenty minutes or so, arouse yourself and feel refreshed.

7. Develop supportive relationships.  We are, by nature, social animals and need the company of others in our lives.  And during difficult times the understanding and concern of a trusted friend can be a powerful tonic.  This is actually one of the curative ingredients in most forms of psychotherapy.  In its truest and healthiest form however, friendships is a two way street.  That is, we need to be there for those that have been there for us.

8. Become appropriately assertive.  Most of us want to be liked.  But many of us avoid standing up for our rights for fear of offending others.  Unfortunately, resentment and stress can build quickly this way.  But being properly assertive, however, allows us to speak up for ourselves, yet remain sensitive to the concerns of others.  Family therapists have long known of the value of discussion in resolving interpersonal problems.  Thus, assertiveness can not only reduces stress it can enhances relationships.

9. Organize your life.  It can be much fun when events are not clearly predictable and when the unknown offers potential surprise and delight.  But disorganization, like chaos, tends to produce tension and pressure in our lives.  If you lead a disorderly or disarranged kind of life, you may find that the simple act of organizing your day can reduce stress.  For example, one way to better manage your time is to systematize your daily activities with the use of an activity log.  Here you simply note your daily routine and record the amount of time spent on each activity.  Later, when you analyze your schedule, you may find many tasks you can change or jobs you can cut aback on. This may lead to a better organized and more predictable day, and result in less hassle, pressure, tension and reduced stress.

In addition to these suggestions, you may find it helpful to go back over the quiz and, where you can, adjust your behavior to conform more to the “a” and “b” answers.  This exercise may help you develop the kind of personality style necessary to remain stress free.

Effort put into any of these activities can lower your level of stress or its harmful effects.  It may even save your life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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