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Deal with Stress, Live with Peace
Posted: 4/30/2013 | Wellness Comments
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The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.
–William James

So much has been going on in the world around us this month, from national tragedies to natural disasters. It’s been a tough time, and we’re still reeling from it. It makes sense, then, that April is Stress Awareness Month. It’s interesting that stress has become so common and affected our collective health so severely, we’ve actually dedicated a month to bring it to our attention. Our lives can often feel chaotic. Most of us have so much to do in little time. We earn a living, grow a business, care for our families, maintain relationships, sometimes the list seems endless. Global conflict is escalating. It can feel as if we’ve scant resources left over to care for ourselves, and we’re just learning the devastating consequences of our stressful modern lives.

What is stress, exactly? It’s a popular word these days, and it’s bandied about to cover a myriad of maladies. Frankly, I’m not sure that many of us know exactly what it is. It can be experienced in different ways according to our personal make up. One definition says: “physical, chemical, or emotional factors that cause bodily or mental tension altering an existent equilibrium.”

Some amounts of stress are a natural part of living. People get sick, lose jobs, and those natural disasters do happen. For most of our evolution, our lives were treacherous and hard at times but it seems (at least looking from here) simpler. In our history, we chopped wood and carried water, did much heavy labor but we were often focused on the task at hand. Or we might suddenly have had to run from a tiger; a dangerous event, but it ended shortly, one way or the other. We weren’t multitasking.

Stress on the physical body can be caused by disease, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, or intense physical training, poor sleeping habits and just pushing past our limits. Of course we know that our perception of this is what feeds the experience of stress. Psychologically speaking, stress is our perception and then reaction to anything we consider difficult or disruptive. It can be something from the painful loss of a loved one to the joyful birth of a baby. We can feel stress when we’re cheerful or depressed. There are small stressors, like that key that never turns easily in your front door, to the big ones, like the heartbreaking news of the Boston Bombings. And it’s not the event itself that causes stress, it’s our reaction to the event.

When something happens to trigger “stress,” our thoughts and feelings about the event create a hormonal response in our bodies. Surprise, horror, grief, fear, confusion and even intense joy can change our chemistry enough to raise our heart rate, increase blood pressure, and trigger an adrenal response. Cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones are released to keep us alert and prepare us for danger. Over time, this hormonal response–fight, flight, or freeze–creates a physical and emotional imbalance. Symptoms can vary from person to person, but it may show up as insomnia, depression, anxiety disorder, weight gain, increases belly fat storage, and memory loss. It can lead to stroke, heart attacks, autoimmune and other diseases.

Elizabeth Gould, a researcher at Princeton University, found that “levels of stress hormones rise with aging, and are very likely to be responsible for the decline in neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons.) The good news, though, is that the aging brain doesn’t appear to lose the ability to generate new neurons” when stress is relieved.

We experience two types of stress: chronic and acute. Acute stress happens with a short or singular event like a sudden fright, an accident, or we’re just having a really bad day. Chronic stress is the real killer, and is created when we experience stress over weeks, months, and years. It can be caused by financial distress, difficult relationships, depression, exposure to war, a negative work environment, or poor self-care to name just a few reasons. Chronic stress wears us out over time with serious consequences.

It’s important we’re aware of the consistent and growing stress in our lives, because once we’re aware, we can take steps to reduce the stress and heal. We can learn to change our response to events that trigger stress. We can care for our bodies, settle our thoughts, soothe our feelings, and develop mindfulness in our daily lives, no matter what happens around us.

Next I’ll offer 5 simple ways you can relieve stress, and we’ll explore other ways to reduce our chronic stress levels and live with greater peace.

Where do you experience stress the most in your life? Are you handling it well? Please share your thoughts with us. Your comments make a difference!

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