Stress Avoidance Secrets: Proven Strategies
**Robert M. Sapolsky, PhD, professor of biological sciences and neuroscience at Stanford University, Stanford, CA.
As the pace of American society continues to accelerate, the incidence of psychological stress keeps climbing. Stress is not just an annoyance. It has been linked to adult-onset diabetes, ulcerative colitis, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure and other serious ailments. Yet we all know individuals who are stress-resistant — lucky folks who never seem “stressed out” despite the competing demands of career, family, etc.
TWO SIDES OF STRESS
When confronted by a threat to its physical well-being, the body undergoes what is known as the stress response. It temporarily abandons its long-term “building projects” — growth, tissue repair, immune function, etc. Instead, it floods the bloodstream with glucose, protein and fat from reserves in the liver and fat cells. Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate skyrocket. These physiological changes can save your live by giving you extra speed or strength…or a more focused mind. Problem: The stress response occurs not only when we are confronted by physical danger, but also in situations that simply make us feel anxious– from getting stuck in truck to having an argument with a spouse or coworker. Research on both animals and humans suggests four effective strategies for limiting the toll taken by chronic stress…
A SENSE OF CONTROL
Having a sense of control over one’s situation reduces the stress response. This has been shown in studies of humans exposed to a loud, intermittent noise. Individuals who believed they could stop the noise by pressing a button felt less stress than subjects without this option — even though the sense of control was illusory. But reducing stress is not as simple as saying, Take as much control as possible. In the case of an automobile accident, a diagnosis of a terminal disease or another uncontrollable event, suggesting that an individual can control the situation only adds feelings of guilt and inadequacy to stress. In extreme situations it’s usually better to deny personal responsibility for the problem — by identifying an external source of control. Example: No one could have stopped the car in time. Control is most helpful in coping with moderate stressors — traffic jams, supermarket lines, setbacks at work, etc.
Imagine asking your dentist, How much longer will you have to drill? It’s much less stressful to hear, Three minutes, than it is to hear, I don’t know. Studies show that animals and humans given a warning signal before being subjected to a stressor experience less stress. Caveat: This “early warning” must come far enough in advance to allow the subject to prepare… but not too far ahead. With rats, flashing a warning light 10 seconds before the administration of an electrical shock reduces stress response. A light that flashes one-half second before the shock has no effect. When the light is flashed five minutes before the shock, rats experience more stress than if no light is flashed. How can humans predict their stressors? By getting accurate, specific information. Examples: Listening to the traffic report on the way to work… reading about treatment options for a serious illness…setting aside a specific time each day to speak with coworkers who otherwise might interrupt your workday.
HAVING AN OUTLET
A rat exposed to shock feels less stress if it’s given an outlet for its nervous energy — the opportunity to run on an exercise wheel or gnaw on wood. Humans benefit from outlets, too. Most people know what helps them relax — whether it’s playing the clarinet, working out or practicing meditation. Each has been shown to lower blood pressure and adrenaline levels. Most important: Create a change in tempo from the rest of the day. Pursuing your favorite activities three times a week has a greater effect on stress than saving all your outlets for the weekend.
CONTACT WITH OTHERS
As a threat to health and longevity, social isolation is second only to low socioeconomic status. Isolated people have a higher mortality rate than even smokers, obese people and hypertensives. Implication:You can defuse stressful situations via physical contact with another person — holding hands, hugging, etc. Exception:An Ohio State University study found that spouses in bad marriages had drastically suppressed immune systems. People living alone needn’t despair — health benefits can accrue from contact with a liver, close friends, fellow members of a church or synagogue, etc.