Stress - Friend or Foe

Dr. Purushothaman
January 17, 2014

Stress is a common attribute in our daily working lives and as a general rule, most of the documentation regarding stress is negative. It is associated with health problems including high blood pressure, ulcers, hernias, insomnia, fatigue, depression, anxiety, headaches, and can lead to strokes, heart disease, addictions, premature aging and death if not addressed and managed correctly. If however, we manage stress effectively in our daily lives, it can be a useful and very handy tool in our arsenal to cope with the lives we live in the 21st Century.
Back in the days of caveman, nomads and the hunter gatherers, the stress response was part of the survival instinct of fight or flight. When face to face with a hairy mammoth or saber toothed tiger, the stress response was triggered, releasing a massive surge of adrenaline and cortisol. The stress response increases metabolism, heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, and improves blood flow to the muscles by a massive 300 to 400 hundred percent. Pupils dilate and other senses are heightened ready to for action, in preparation for the need to flee or stand up and defend, often for survival.
In modern corporate society, humans have evolved but our stress response remains the same. When the stress response is working to our advantage, it provides drive and motivation, and keeps us focused, alert and energized. It can bring out the best in people as they realise they can do what they set out to do, with pleasing results. These attributes are important when we need to finish projects, meet deadlines, or study for exams. It fuels ambition and the want to succeed, and in emergency situations can even save lives. The stress response is the reason behind the extraordinary strength we possess to defend ourselves in times of danger (similar in caveman times) and is also the cause as to why we feel no pain after serious shock or trauma.
These amazing benefits require short term bursts of energy and adrenaline but long term stress can lead to many serious health concerns for the body. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in the body. The autonomic nervous system is constantly firing so the relaxation response is rarely triggered and as explained earlier, our bodies are built to handle acute, short term stress well, not long term chronic stress. We come across stressful situations everyday in the modern world. High pressure jobs, family difficulties, peak hour traffic and death of a loved one can elevate the stress response to dangerously high levels. Our acute stress response was initially developed to fight off saber toothed tigers, bears, or other caveman hazards. When stress levels become constant and hit chronic levels, the prolonged stress wears down every facet of our bodies causing us to fall ill, both mentally and physically. It is estimated that of all visits to a doctor's surgery, up to 90% of patients' complaints have components related to chronic stress.
For all of the above reasons, it is imperative we learn how to manage and diminish stress effectively for the long term. There are numerous ways we can reduce chronic stress in our lives.
The most obvious way is to reduce or eliminate the stressors from our lives that cause chronic stress and tension. However the most obvious answer is not always the most straight forward as it's sometimes difficult to remove ourselves from a stressful job, deadlines, family trouble or traffic jams.
Rather than change the things we cannot, we can alter the way we deal with them. The easiest way to do this is with simple breathing techniques. Deep breathing triggers the relaxation response and slows down all the stimulating triggers caused from the stress response including rapid heart rate, pulse rate, and sensory overload. Simple in through the nose, out through the mouth big, slow breaths has an instant, calming effect throughout the whole body.
Another fantastic way to trigger the relaxation response is from massage. Corporate massage is an ideal compliment for any corporate office as stress and tension can be effectively managed and controlled within the workplace environment. Yoga and meditation are other effective relaxation techniques forcing the body to slow down, relax and take some time out.
A healthy body creates a healthy mind and vice versa so healthy eating habits are also a very important facet in creating a physically and mentally healthy body. Healthy eating provides optimal fuel required for daily activity and if we feel better, we are more motivated and enthusiastic, ready to tackle work constraints with reserves for fun and play, and thus the cycle continues.
As the saying goes, sleep promotes sleep and if our mind is working overdrive and not switching off when we need to rest, we don't sleep. Surviving on no sleep or very little is difficult. Ask any new mum what sleep deprivation is like and they will tell you it's almost impossible to make a cup of coffee let alone function to the best of our ability. If we allow our body to relax and completely switch off, sleep should come naturally and easily. When asleep, we recover and wake refreshed and ready for the following day's curve balls.
Exercising, sweating and getting the blood pumping are also great ways of releasing stress and tension. Endorphins are released while we exercise and these hormones are often referred to as the feel good hormone, contributing to our overall feeling of wellbeing. When we feel great, we feel like we can conquer anything, and nothing is impossible.
The most important aspect of managing stress is taking control of our lives and managing everything effectively. Balance is the key and as it's often difficult or impossible to moderate our crazy busy lives but managing and controlling our triggers and stressors and putting everything into perspective is something we can control.

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