When Joanie first came to see me, she seemed like a person in total control. She had a lucrative law practice, a loving husband, three adorable children.
Nevertheless, she was recovering from her third pounding headache in as many days. When I asked if anything in particular was worrying her, she had a one-word answer.
She told me she was anxious about deadlines at work, her husband’s recent health scare, even the kids’ science projects. Things big and small were keeping her awake at night.
“I wonder,” Joanie said. “Could stress be making me physically ill?”
Scientists have been trying to answer that seemingly simple question — and understand the interplay between body and mind — since the days of the ancient Greeks. Researchers still have much to learn, but this much is certain:
Heart disease, cancer, adult-onset diabetes and Alzheimer’s — the modern maladies that will be the death of most of us — can be caused or complicated by stress. But as harmful as chronic stress can be, not all stress is bad. In fact, some situational stress can be life-saving.
Joanie looked confused, so I told her about Dr. Robert Sapolsky.
The Neuro-endocrinologist and Stanford University professor begins many of his lectures on stress with a word from high school biology — homeostasis. It comes from the Greek words for “same” and “steady” and refers to any process that living things use to maintain stability.
That internal steadiness is desirable, Sapolsky says, unless, for example, you’re being chased by a lion. Then the situational stress, leading to the secretion of adrenaline and other hormones, will give you energy, bolster your immune defenses and help you think more clearly. With luck, you’ll escape. And even though your body is not in homeostatic balance during that tumultuous time, the automatic stress response is completely appropriate.
The problem, Sapolsky says, is that it doesn’t take physical danger for many of us to experience chronic stress reactions. An argument with the boss, a traffic jam keeping you from an important assignment, even a painful memory from childhood can trigger the chemical responses. React that way often enough, Sapolsky says, and you run the risk of damaging your cardiovascular system, your nervous system, or even causing brain damage.
Another leading expert in the burgeoning field, Dr. Esther Sternberg, says the interplay between our emotions and physical health, mediated by stress, also can affect our susceptibility to depression, arthritis, AIDS and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Sternberg, who studies the connections between mind, body, stress, wellness and the environment, comes to many of the same conclusions as Sapolsky: a well-timed stress response can save your life or the life of others. But a chronic cascade of hypothalamic, pituitary and adrenal hormones can be dangerous.
Most of us lead stress-filled lives, even though we encounter very few lions.
To best cope with the stressors we face every day, Sapolsky, Sternberg and experts at the American Psychological Association offer these suggestions:
Take a break from the stressor
It’s tough to escape a big work project, a crying baby, a disappointingly large credit card bill. But give yourself permission to step away, if only briefly.You can’t abandon your child or even avoid those bills, but taking a few minutes for yourself is important.
Even a 20-minute walk, run, swim or dance routine can change and improve your mood.
Vent to a loved one, someone you trust
Knowing that you can occasionally share your burdens can be a vast relief.
It will help you relax and focus.
If someone cuts you off in traffic or grabs your parking space, don’t allow him or her to upset you. It’s not worth your good health.
I wish you and yours a happy and low-stress new year.