Quietly Taking a Toll

Why doing more can lead to less: How stress undermines health and happiness

Your head hurts. Your stomach churns. Your body aches with exhaustion. You lie awake at night, too anxious to fall asleep. During the day, you drag yourself along, too worn out to accomplish much.

As the weight of the world takes its toll on your mind and body, you experience moments of sadness, insecurity, anger and perhaps despair. “It’s just stress,” you might think to yourself.

But before you discount the tension that continues to pervade your life, psychologists and other experts advise that you think again. Stress, they say, can slowly wear you down. And if it gets out of control, it can damage your health, your relationships and your quality of life.

Yet despite its prevalence, chronic stress is often overlooked or disregarded by the very people who are suffering from the problem.

“It has become socially acceptable to see ourselves stressed,” says Dr. Laura Asbell, a clinical psychologist in Spokane. “There’s an expectation that’s hard-wired in our brains to work more, to acquire more, to do more. It’s part of our culture now.”

People who lead hectic and busy lives are perceived as hard-working and productive, she says, whereas those who take the time to slow down and relax tend to be viewed as slackers. Just ask someone about their weekend, she suggests. Those who spent it jumping from one activity to another appear to lead exciting lives, while people who sit around and read or hang out at home might seem a little on the boring side.

Because of these expectations, people also are subject to more social and economic pressures — from keeping up with the Joneses to everyday worries such as rising gas prices, employment and making ends meet in a sinking economy, according to experts.

People also have less time and more choices than ever before. Saying “no” is often no longer an option in a society that expects people to do more, produce more and become more involved, Asbell says.

All of these factors, experts say, inevitably contribute to people’s high level of stress and burnout.

“In this rushed, fast-paced world, our culture also is becoming less civil,” Asbell adds. “We’re rude to each other and that makes people even more stressed.”

When faced with these external pressures, the body responds by going into a “flight or fight” mode, leading the nervous system to go into overdrive, explains Dr. Angelique Tindall, a clinical psychologist at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in Spokane.

This flight-or-fight response releases adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones through the bloodstream, preparing the body to run away or go into battle. The heart rate quickens. Blood sugar rises. Pupils dilate. Muscles tense. Bodily functions that aren’t needed for immediate survival quickly shut down.

While this biological and physiological reaction to stress certainly came in handy during the Stone Age, its effects can be detrimental in the modern world, according to the American Institute of Stress, a New York-based nonprofit that serves as a clearinghouse for information on all subjects related to stress.

“Contemporary stress tends to be more pervasive, persistent and insidious because it stems primarily from psychological [rather] than physical threats,” according to the AIS Website.

Instead of the threat of a wild animal, the stresses we encounter in the 21st century that make us feel as though we’re under attack involve traffic jams, tight deadlines, financial and social obligations as well as confrontations with bosses, customers and family members. These modern-day forms of stress don’t happen just once in a while, experts say; they can occur many times each day, sometimes even every hour. But these contemporary pressures still trigger that flight-or-fight response, which damages our bodies, says Tindall.

“After a while, people get used to [stress], but the body continues to operate at a level that it wasn’t designed to operate at,” she says. “That’s when things wear down.”

As a result, individuals under stress may suffer from sleep disorders, become more susceptible to colds, compromise their immune system and perhaps lose their tempers more easily, she says.

“You become more vulnerable and you lessen your ability to cope with the demands of your life,” Tindall says. In some cases, the continued stress can contribute to ulcers, heart attacks, back pain, obesity and other serious health problems.

For people living with an illness, stress can exacerbate problems. In Type 2 diabetes, stress can raise blood glucose levels, according to Patsy Andrews, a registered nurse and the diabetes health educator at Spokane’s Community Health Education and Resources (CHER). Stress also can make a person with diabetes feel exhausted or overwhelmed, she says, so that individual may not be able to eat well, exercise or properly check his or her blood glucose levels. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, having quiet time to relax, getting adequate sleep — these are some of the positive steps that people can take to better cope with stress, says Andrews, who teaches a class on how stress affects diabetes and what people need to do to manage stress in their lives.

A positive outlook also makes a difference, according to some experts.

“You have to deal with negatives every day,” says Tindall. “If you get your mind and body in a positive frame of reference, then you can cope with the negative things.” But often, perhaps because we live in such a fast-paced society that demands so much from us, people don’t realize they’re suffering from stress, says Tindall, who helps patients discern their level of stress by using computers and other technology to measure heart rate, muscle tension and other changes in their bodies.

Unfortunately, doctors can’t always diagnose stress as the root cause of a patient’s symptoms, according to Tindall. Some doctors may not have the time to ask about a patient’s lifestyle to discern whether the symptoms are the result of stress.

“People expect a treatment for the symptom and sometimes popping a pill is the quickest answer,” Tindall says. “But that doesn’t address the issue that brought the symptom in the first place.”

In a few cases, people may not even realize they’re stressed until they suffer from a heart attack or another catastrophic health problem, she says.

Experts say the key is to find balance.

“If your life is just working and sleeping, then maybe it’s time to think about engaging in meaningful down-time,” says Tindall.

However, if you’ve reached a point where you feel overwhelmed, if you’re calling into work sick all the time, if you’re alienating others, or if you feel as though you’re drowning and can’t cope with the demands of life, then it’s probably time to seek help from a professional.

By getting help, finding activities we enjoy and spending time with the people we love, we not only feel better and can better deal with stress, Asbell says, we also lead healthier, happier lives.

“We have to take time to exercise and create healthy behaviors,” she says. “We’ve got to make sure we take care of ourselves.”

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