To be human is to experience stress. At best it is disruptive, and at its worst it is destructive, During our training we speak of all the things that go on with people who experience too much stress.
It is estimated that illnesses and accidents related to stress account for three-quarters of all time lost from work. Stress or too much of it is implicated in the majority of cases seen in the doctor’s office, hospital beds, and ultimately the graveyard. In spite of all of the media attention to health, stress-related problems take the vast majority of people by surprise. They might have known that stress can harm others, but never fully realized what it could do for them.
Think of your body as a magnificent but outdated wooden battleship. It has many powerful and intricate weapons to use in response to the “enemy,” stress. Our weapons are beautifully designed but unfortunately designed for the wrong war. Our stress responses were programmed for life in our primitive state, thousands of years before we became “civilized.”
Stresses such as over-crowding, traffic, pollution, and government red tape were hardly even in existence until the last couple of centuries. The human body is well set up for high primal stresses. However, it isn’t very good at coping with small Insidious ones such as forgetting where you put your keys, a single mosquito in your room at night, the dripping of a faucet, or the constant whining of a child. It seems that your body has no sense of humor at all.
Our natural response to stress is our body releasing cortisone from the adrenal gland, the original benefit was from an instant allergy reaction such as asthma or the closing of the eyes from a dust-up with an attacking foe. The drawback today is that chronically elevated cortisone destroys the body’s resistance to the stresses of cancer, infection, surgery, and illness. Every lymph gland in the body shrivels up; the immune system weakens. The ability to fight off every minor cold (as well as major illnesses) is greatly impaired.
Chronic cortisone elevation also dramatically reduces the stomach’s resistance to its own acid leading to gastric and duodenal ulcers. Bones are made more brittle by cortisone. Thus they could fracture much more easily. Blood pressure can be elevated by the retention of sodium, which can also push a borderline heart failure case into trouble. (The common stress response of eating a diet high in fast food, rich in salt, is thus even more harmful than usual.) Adrenaline is also released by the adrenal glands, and mediates a host of bodily reactions as well.
In our society, it is easy to slip into a vicious-circle kind of life style. First we rush to embrace material goods, conveniences, and “the good life,” thereby reducing our abilities to cope with stress. Second we reward competition and achievement above most other human endeavors and design our lives around left-brain (rational, linear-thought) concepts, thereby increasing the amount of stress in our daily lives. There are tremendous pressures on all of us to follow both of these paths and to ignore our physical, mental, and spiritual wellness.
As illustrated above, stress is a dangerous opportunity. On an emotional level at least, many of us are more aware of its perils than its possibilities. It is not without important benefits, however. Stress can prevent stagnation; stimulate interest and curiosity, and foster creativity.
The key to surviving and maximizing the perils and benefits of stress is manageability. We simply must learn to ignore what we cannot control, and learn to control what we can.
Sally L. Phipps, Faculty