The Dangerous Potential of Stress: How to Manage Before It Gets Too Far
Our culture tends to glamorize stress; to somehow create the idea that stress is the prize for being an “important” or “powerful” person. The more stressful the lifestyle, the more important the role a person plays in life. As we see our culture escalate into the future, we see that more and more demands are made on our time and our lives.
We also begin to accumulate stress earlier in life than ever before. Children as early as second and third grade are starting to feel the pressures of stress. As they grow older, the levels of stress to perform well in several arenas increases. Seven and eight-year-old children are showing the symptoms of lives burdened by increased stress. As they experience greater numbers of anxiety and panic disorders, it may be time for us to examine the high costs of a life lived with numerous stress-inducing factors.
What is Stress?
Stress is a perceived demand, placed on us within our own minds, to be or do something that does not currently exist. This can be a demand for food, for productivity, for high performance or a danger that is imminent. When we cognitively experience this demand, our physiology shifts into production of hormones that make it possible for our bodies to respond. This response is known as the “flight or fight” response, which was designed by Nature to give us a rush of necessary adrenalin to escape a life-threatening situation that may be present.
As we receive this rush of adrenaline and cortisol, our bodies have various mechanisms that kick into gear to protect our (perceived) threats. Our heart beats faster, our muscles become tighter, our breathing increases and our senses become heightened. These responses are perfectly good for us when we need to react to a dangerous situation.
When is It Bad?
However, the production of stress hormones on a regular and consistent basis can damage our health in many ways. To remain in a constant state of high reactivity begins to wear on the heart and nervous system. This damage is cumulative and can begin to wear down resistance to many types of disorders of the mind and body. Stress has been shown to be a leading factor in heart disease, diabetes and many forms of cancer. Along with the damage to the central nervous system, living in a heightened state of preparedness for disaster feeds into disorders such as anxiety, panic disorders and behaviors that occur with these disorders. PTSD is a disorder that ensues from having survived a traumatic event and the experience of living in that event, over and over again.
A Change in Perspective
The first thing that needs to change with each of us is our relationship with stress. We can each examine our beliefs in why we believe we should multitask, drink excessive amounts of energy drinks and caffeine products to increase our productivity and maintain a lifestyle of “busyness.” We can examine the thinking that we must do more than others in order to “keep up” with them. We can even begin to explore the mentality behind “bigger, better, more” that drives us into mental, emotional and physical collapse.
Once we see the faulty thinking that underlies our race through life, we can then begin to practice the type of awareness that will bring us “to” life. Many schools of thought have embraced alternative lifestyles for dealing with the hustle and bustle we have created to stop “doing” and become more active in “being.”
While most of us know of someone who has died, have we paid attention to their beliefs at the end of their lives? When asked, all of them have the same regrets about the lives they have led. These regrets are not about what they accomplished or acquired in their lives but about the time they did not spend with family and friends, the moments that were squandered, wasted and ill-spent on being driven by busyness instead of enjoyed. None of them regretted the time they spent watching a sunset or experiencing moments in the natural world around them.
Their lives were made richer by walks by lakes, beaches or in the woods, either alone or with loved ones. They expressed regret at not playing more often with children and grandchildren or spending time with hobbies that fed their spirit. The regrets also included their spiritual or religious practices. They regretted the time they missed out on connection to the world around them and the missed opportunities to spend quality time with family and friends.
Mindfulness and meditation can be very beneficial to counteract the damage done by excessive stress. A daily practice of writing a gratitude list is beneficial for refocusing on non-material gifts which most of us take for granted. Walking in nature is also one of the most beneficial methods to heighten awareness, uplift our mood and restructure the brain towards good mental and physical health.
Regular exercise, a healthy diet and regular sleep patterns may sound like an easy fix—and that’s because they are. Taking good care of the physical side of our lives is also good for mental and emotional stability. Stress disorders begin as mental problems. They turn into physical ailments only when they are ignored and continue to escalate.
Sitting quietly and reading to children or being mindfully present to others is a great start. Turn off the TV, cell phones, computers and electronic gadgets. Be present to yourself and others. The greatest joy we can receive is in our relationship to others, that exchange of energy that fills our hearts and souls with a sense of purpose, wonder and joy.
The Cons of Multi-tasking
Contrary to popular opinion, multi-tasking is actually not as productive as it seems. Memory is lost because we are not present emotionally or mentally when we are doing two, three or more things at once. Instead, being present to each task increases our cognitive skills as well as delivers a stronger memory response. The more intense our focus is, the greater the memory development we achieve.
The skills that we develop mindfully such as music, dance, sports and learning produce greater recall in later life. Teaching children to be mindful, instead of multi-tasking through life, will increase not only their pleasure in the activities they participate in but also their ability to perform and enjoy their performances.
Changing our minds about stress is the beginning of the conversation we can have with ourselves, our children, our families and the world around us. Not buying into the “go, go, go!” mentality of our modern culture can start the process of healing in all of us.
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions’ counselor.