If your body were an automobile, it would be a top-of-the-line, luxury-class off-road vehicle with all of the latest options. Just one problem: it was designed for the savannas of Africa, not downtown Manhattan or suburbs of Capetown. The stress-response mechanism, also known as the “fight-or-flight syndrome”, gave you great chance to survive before the Bronze Age, but fails miserably in the modern environment. This mechanism immediately foods your muscles with robust energy making you far more able to evade the hungry predator. Unfortunately, this same stress-response also kicks in during psychological stress. Such stress is often chronic, making your stress-response mechanism work dangerously overtime, and putting your body at risk of many stress-related disorders and diseases.
Robert M. Sapolsky, a professor of biological and neurological sciences at Stanford University, conducting research on stress and neuron degeneration, explains it all in his excellent book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.
As you can probably tell, a zebra on an African savanna lives a less complicated, though much riskier, life than the average human. A zebra must routinely contend with severe, acutely physical crises. Any second it must be ready to race away if a predator suddenly appears. Its stress-response mechanisms, triggered by a physical danger, quickly activate functions needed to be as fast as possible and inhibits all other processes that can wait for a couple of minutes. When the stress cause is over, all functions get back to their normal status.
Your body has exactly the same mechanism. As soon as your brain feels any threat, imaginary or not, you sympathetic nervous system releases hormones, including adrenaline (also called epinephrine), and norepinephrine, glucocorticoids, and glucagon. These hormones activate your organs during stress, partly by raising the glucose level in blood. The stress response also inhibits other hormones, which it considers unnecessary for saving you life, such as testosterone, estrogen and progesterone.
The immediate release of stress-fighting hormones to react to sudden danger can save your life, but the routine release of such powerful hormones over an extended period is incredibly harmful. It can cause atherosclerosis, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders and ulcers, depression, memory problems, brain damage, sleep deprivation, and accelerate aging.
Probably among the most widespread lethal illnesses, there is only one for which scientists have not yet established a link with stress: this is cancer. However, I am not sure you will find any comfort in this.
Experts offer many possible stress reduction solutions and recommend trying various approaches to see if you are better served by changing the stressor or by adjusting how you perceive it. Your choices depend on your personality and circumstances, as well as the type of stressors you experience. You could adopt one coping strategy today and another one tomorrow. Just trying something new is often the best strategy. Change can be energizing and often extremely healthful. Different tactics suggested by Robert M. Sapolsky include:
- Exercise – Regular exercise lowers the risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, or makes it less likely that stress will exacerbate them.
- Socialization – People who socialize often are less stressed than loners are. However, choose your pals wisely. Time with a peevish person can increase you stress level.
- Control – Studies found that when nursing home residents exercised more control over their own affairs (even caring for their plants), they became happier and healthier. Hospital patients who are able to self-administer their painkillers also experience less stress. David Rock in his brilliant book Brain at Work cites a study of British civil servants, which found that low-level employees had more health problems than senior executives did. This does not make sense intuitively, as senior executives are known to be under a lot of stress. The perception of choice may be more important than diet and other factors for health. Choosing in some way to experience stress is less stressful than experiencing stress without a sense of choice or control;
- Predictability – You will feel calmer if you do know how and when something will occur than if you do not. Thus, it often is helpful to learn establish predictability when possible
- Meditation – Glucocorticoid levels and blood pressure drop during meditation. In his book Robert M. Sapolsky mentions that it is not clear whether these effects remain after the experience, but the meta-analysis of 20 studies published by German researches in 2004 found that mindfulness meditation helps cope with stress and a broad range of chronic disorders and problems.
- The “80/20 rule” – The first 20% of your efforts will cut 80% of your stress. Doing something about emotional problems – even just scheduling an appointment with a therapist – often makes all the difference. Thus, it is productive to take action of some kind to reduce stress. Instituting an immediate change is the best way to relieve stress quickly. Take action now;
- Optimism (the book called it “denial”) – In the face of utter disaster, never give up hope. The book cites the study where scientists reduced the chances that lab rats get sick by making them perceive their reality in a positive way. This may sound naïve, but such a positive attitude will help you reduce stress.
- Find an “outlet for your frustrations” – Swimming, smashing up old furniture with a sledgehammer, singing a song as loud as possible. Whatever it is, do it regularly if it helps.
- Repetition – The more often you do something stressful, the less stressful it can become. My personal remark for this strategy: make sure that the remedy will not hurt more than the illness; getting used to something stressful may great a great deal of stress before you get used to it.
- Psychotherapy – Fresh professional look will never hurt if you can afford this.
Many believe that spirituality and religion greatly reduce stress and improve health. While extensive literature exists on this subject, the conclusion on the positive effects of religion and spirituality on stress is yet to be made if. And I see no practical sense in these studies: the stress-relief is, at least consciously, the last reason why people get affiliated with a particular religion.
Regardless of your beliefs or lack thereof, you may find useful this prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” The small picture on the left tells the same story for non-believers.