Sunday, July 24, 2011

Stress: Tolerable Today, It Could Kill You Tomorrow

Stress: Tolerable Today, It Could Kill You Tomorrow
The ability to delude yourself may be an important survival tool.
"I work better under pressure." "I need a deadline to crank me up to do my best work." These excuses for adopting stress instead of independent work skills and developing an ability to focus on work at hand may be too much cost for too little benefit.
It's like saying that you can type better with one hand tied behind your back. Or that you perform better at sex when you are impaired with alcohol or drugs. Believe it if you will, but it's still not true. In the final analysis, stress always does more damage than good.
Long term, stress can shorten a "normal" lifetime (dying of natural causes) by three to seven years. It compromises the immune system, meaning that a reduced immune reaction to an attack by viruses or bacteria means a person will get sick. The hormone cortisol is emitted by the adrenal gland to reduce the damaging effects of stress. It's part of our natural "fight or flight" response to danger. But if the stress continues, this strong hormone continues to be pumped into the body. That can result in impaired cognitive performance, thyroid problems (the thyroid prompts the brain to act in many ways, so the brain is affected as well), blood sugar imbalances, higher blood pressure. It can even cause an accumulation of abdominal fat. No one is certain today what effects cortisol exposure can have on the brain, including mood, temper, sleep pattern and personality as each person may react differently to its long term effects.
It is known, through studies, that long term exposure to cortisol causes damage to the human hippocampus, which is very important to learning new things and to memory of what a person has learned.
In a 2010 study by the American Psychological Association, money, work, financial future, family and relationships caused the greatest amount of stress for Americans. Stress itself may be tied to cancer, though the exact linkage is unclear.
Can it cause a broken heart? Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, or "broken heart syndrome," occurs when the bottom part of the heart balloons out, caused when grief or another major stressor floods stress hormones into the heart. Yes, a person can die of a broken heart and the causes are both physical and emotional.
High levels of cortisol in pregnant mothers has been associated with lower IQs in their children, tested at age seven. It has also been associated with autism, though whether stress in mother or baby actually causes autism has not been proven.
One way of avoiding job stress is to have a career in a job expected to be obsolete within a few years., in a survey of 200 professions, found bookbinders have the least stress of any in 2011. Firefighters and airline pilots have the most. Another way is to move to a less stressful location. found Salt Lake City, Utah, the least stressful city among 50 studied in the United States. Detroit took top spot as the most stressful.
This may come as a surprise to some, but not at all to others. Texas A&M International University gave 103 test subjects several stressful tasks, then had them play violent video games. Their stress eased considerably. Best results: Hitman: Blood Money and Call of Duty 2. For those under great stress, virtual violence decreased their bodily reactions to stress.
Militaries handle stress differently. They have their soldiers eat veggies. Military Medicine magazine reported that Yale researchers found eating carrots and potatoes boosted a soldier's cognitive functioning after intensive sessions of survival training. The militaries call it "carbohydrate administration," but it's simply eating complex carbs of any kind. Eating simple carbohydrates like cookies and cake didn't do the trick.
A sudden change of diet can cause stress as well. Going on a restrictive diet quickly (without easing into it) can cause depression or anxiety, according to a study by neuroscientists at the University of Pennsylvania who studied sudden changes of diet with mice that had been fattened up then had their calories severely limited. What is a stressor to a mouse? One method used by the researchers was hanging the mice by their tails for six minutes.
Louisiana State University researchers tried it differently. They caused their test rats to be subjected to random electric shocks to their feet. Then the rats were allowed to self administer intravenous doses of cocaine. As the stress was increased, the rats gave themselves more cocaine. [Anyone who doesn't generalize on that finding is simply not thinking enough. Why do we take so many drugs these days? A more pertinent question might be why do we not teach kids in high school how to cope with stressors in their lives before they resort to possibly harmful alternatives?]
Eating excessively and obsessively is a reaction to constant stress. Researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Portugal's University of Minho stressed lab rats then allowed them to self access treats. Trained to press a level to receive treats, stressed rats continued to press the level after the stress had stopped and even after they had been fed a meal. The brains of the rats showed shrunken neurons in the dorsomedial striatum, an area of the brain associated with goal directed behaviour, and growth in the dorsolateral striatum, which is related to habitual behaviour. In other words, constant stress caused the rats to habitually overeat.
Do you wonder if overly stressed researchers reduce their stress by conducting experiments on lab rats and mice?
We will conclude this article with an anecdote that has been circulating the internet in recent months.
A young lady confidently walked around the room while explaining stress management to an audience.
With a raised glass of water (everyone knew that she was going to ask the ultimate question, "half empty or half full?"), she fooled them all.
"How heavy is this glass of water?" she inquires with a smile.
Answers called out ranged from 8oz. to 20 oz.
She replied, "The absolute weight doesn't matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, that's not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I'll have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it for a day, you'll have to call an ambulance. In every case, it's the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes."
She continued, "And that's the way it is with stress. If we carry our burdens all the time,sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, we won't be able to carry on.
"As with a glass of water, you have to put it down for awhile and rest before holding it again. When we're refreshed. we can carry on with the burden. So, as early in the evening as you can, put all your burdens down. Don't carry them through the evening and into the night.
Pick them up tomorrow. "Whatever burdens you are carrying now, let them down for a moment. Relax, pick them up later after you've rested. Life is short." There may not be so many then and they won't be so heavy.
That's one way we can all learn to cope with stress in our lives.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents, grandparents and teachers who want to teach their children how to cope with an increasingly stressful world. Better they learn young than depend on medical professionals to try to put them back together when they break as adults.
Learn more about this book and read part of it at

Jane Wagner, American writer, director and producer (b.1935)

Friday, July 08, 2011

To Fear Change Is To Fear Life

To Fear Change Is To Fear Life
If we can recognize that change and uncertainty are basic principles, we can greet the future and the transformation we are undergoing with the understanding that we do not know enough to be pessimistic.
 Every living thing finds life dangerous. Every living thing becomes food for other living things. Those that do not become food for other as prey or fodder become food for microbes and other life forms after they die.Those at or near the top of the food chain tend to be in the latter group. We humans, with few natural enemies, tend to die for reasons that have nothing to do with predators.
Yet so many of us act as if we have something to fear at every moment of our lives.
Caution and the fight or flight response and its attendant physical stressors are built into us from birth. Fear is not. Fear is learned. In nature, an animal in fear tends to soon become lunch for a predator. We humans experience fear and its consequences differently.
Some kinds of fear result from unfortunate events in our lives. In my case, I fear heights (acrophobia) and closed-in spaces (claustrophobia) as consequences of seeing many movies, as a young child, that intentionally made viewers afraid as a form of thrill. The producers of the films set out to create shock in viewers. Indeed, it's what most kids my age wanted when we watched a film. The producers did not intend to develop phobias in their viewers. But they did in some.
Some kinds of fear are taught. They might be taught through role modeling by a parent ("my mother hates spiders and I do too"), by a teacher ("you don't want me to send you to the principal, do you?"), or by another person known to the one developing the fear ("Wait till your parents get home").
The colour-coded risk alert levels broadcast in the USA after 9/11 accomplished absolutely nothing in terms of preparing citizens for a possible attack by terrorists, but "amber alert" notices from the White House built fear into the hearts of people, of others who were "different" in appearance or in the way they speak or dress ("You don't see anyone from Sweden becoming suicide bombers"). This in a country that for a very long time claimed to be a melting pot of cultures, where everyone could mix freely and join into one nation in the process. Fear taught by the nation's leaders brought that claim to an end.
Those who fear seek stability. They want the same weather at the same time each year, which can't happen any more, if it ever could. They want stability in their family life, which is awkward with over half of marriages ending in divorce and grown children moving to all parts of the world for work in their specific fields. In fact, a fearful parent is more likely to cause other family members to want to get away from them.
They want stability in their jobs, which is nearly impossible in today's economic climate. More than anything else, they want to avoid change. To a person with fears, change means instability and instability ramps up their fear level.
Yet change is not just a major factor in today's world, it's critically important and inevitable. It's even part of nature.
It's possible to overcome fear, as many can attest as they have had to do so to survive. An overcome fear hides in the background, the way alcohol does to a recovering alcoholic or casinos and lotteries do for a recovering gambling addict. In the background it doesn't impact daily life. It's tolerable.
Fear of change is much more difficult to conquer. In many societies, such as the USA, fear has become a cultural norm. How do you overcome a cultural norm? The same way the US tackled the problem of tobacco smoking, reducing adult smoking from around 75 percent of adults to just over 20 percent (including the major smoking group teens).
As Hazel Henderson said in the quote that began this article, people must be taught that change and uncertainty are normal. That means, as is the case with most teaching, these lessons should be taught to children (whose lives change frequently anyway). They must also be taught how to cope with change. That means they must know what to do when something major happens in their lives over which they have no control. That means planning ahead and having coping skills.
Children need stability as much as adults. They must have stability in some parts of their lives. But they should be taught how to cope, what to do, where to turn, who to ask for help, if unanticipated change strikes them suddenly.
As grown adults, we can learn to cope by planning as well. If your parents are alive today, it's highly likely that they will die before you do. What plan should you have, at least emotionally, for that? Your spouse or a child could die in an accident any day, or from terminal illness in the near future. What would you do then? These are problems most people would rather leave until the last minute, until they happen. Then their impact can be tragic, such as a fear of commitment to someone who might die.
We know that birth and death are part of life, even though either can come unexpectedly. But "unexpectedly" means major change. If you lost your job, what plan would you put in place so that you could get back on your feet as soon as possible? If your home burned so badly it was no longer habitable, what would you do?
Being prepared for life's possible emergencies means you can cope. Coping means less chance of emotion turmoil, including fear or turning to unhealthy alternatives such as addictions, bullying, depression, thrill-seeking and cutting of social connections that brought love into your life. When your life is upside down and inside out, that's when you need love more than ever. Do you know how to handle the love relationships in your life so that they do not get destroyed when another part of your life implodes?
Change and uncertainty are inevitable, but that doesn't mean we can't prepare for them. When these events trouble you most, you need those who love you to depend on. Having no one to fill that role can be devastating.
If you do not have anyone who loves you unreservedly, this would be a good time to learn how to develop that kind of relationship. Social skills are learnable. You can learn them by reading or taking courses.
No one's life is easy. The ones who survive best are those who prepared for downturns ahead of time. They do not become emotionally destroyed. They put their plan in place. They know how to cope.

Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents, grandparents and teachers who want to help children grow and develop so they know how to cope with the most important things that happen in their lives.
Learn more at
- Hazel Henderson, English television producer, futurist, author (b. 1933)