Feeling Stressed? That may be the rhetorical question of our times. We’re all on overload: information overload, work overload, debt overload. Many of us are coping with chronic illness-cardiovascular disease, cancer, AIDS, diabetes. We all wish we had eight days a week, so we could spend more “quality time” with our loved ones, enjoy our hobbies, or just do nothing at all. We’re on fast forward for the long haul. It’s time to adapt, to learn to use stress-engendered energies to enhance performance-or to become as extinct as dinosaurs.
Stress is not the Enemy
Stress, like germs, is typically thought of as a powerful external agent before whose onslaught we are hapless victims, but research shows stress per se does not produce disease. After fifty years of researching stress, Hans Selye, the father of stress theory, concluded that the problem is not stress, but the way we unthinkingly react to it. In his book, Stress of Life, Selye makes the point with a hypothetical example: What happens if you pass a helpless drunk who verbally insults you? If you ignore the abuse, you’re not likely to experience any physiological ill effects, but if you let it anger you, “you will discharge adrenalines that increase blood pressure and pulse rate, while your whole nervous system becomes alarmed and tense in anticipation of combat. If you happen to be a coronary candidate, the result may be a fatal heart attack.” What caused your death? The drunk? His insults? No, Selye explains, “Death was caused by choosing the wrong reaction.” (Selye H. Stress of Life. McGraw Hill: NY)
Richard Rahe, co-developer of the Social Readjustment Rating Scale-the checklist widely used to measure stress-conducted studies of Navy recruits at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego which showed that stress does not automatically equal distress. Neither the number nor severity of stressful events could account for whether an individual became sick. The crucial factor was the meaning the person attached to the events. Cholesterol levels rose sharply only in those recruits who saw training as onerous, depressing and likely to end in failure. Those who found training challenging, even if somewhat frightening, experienced no rise in cholesterol. (Rahe RH, Arthur RJ,. Life change and illness studies: Past history and future directions. Journal of Human Stress, 5(1), 3-15.)
Getting a Grip on Stress Control
Take Stock of Yourself. Harmon Bro, Ph.D., a practicing Jungian therapist for more than fifty years, used the following self-inventory as the first step in learning how to pick the perspective that transforms stress from murderous to motivating. Bro asked his patients four simple, but powerful questions in relation to each of the four primary areas of human life: work, play, love and faith.
- What are you doing in this area of your life? What actions are you taking?
- How are you doing it? What is your attitude, your style? Are you driving yourself, filled with anxiety, constantly proving yourself? Or are you acting in this area with confidence, charity, hope and trust? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
- What are your ends, goals or purposes in this area? What value(s) do you believe each area creates and sustains?
- How do you see yourself progressing in each area? How is your growth, maturity, independence of selfhood, and feeling of community in relation to each area?
The Power of Prayer
Stress, even serious illness, can offer us the opportunity for spiritual growth. In his book, Healing Words, Larry Dossey, M.D., reviews hundreds of studies that provide evidence for what he describes as “one of the best kept secrets in medical science…the extensive experimental evidence for the beneficial effects of prayer.” In the numerous instances of spontaneous remissions and cures of various cancers discussed by Dossey in Healing Words, the only common thread is a letting go at the deepest level along with some variation of the prayer, “Thy will be done.” The sense of letting go, of release, of trust and acceptance that is the essence of prayer appears to marshal our self-healing mechanisms and give them permission to turn on. Prayer may also be the best way to revitalize your perspective
Think about something specific you can be grateful for and be grateful-right now. Some possibilities? Someone you love, your health, that it’s finally Spring, hot steamy showers, music, your sense of humor, sex, chocolate, the fact that you can change-it may not be easy, but you can become the person you want to be. Everything that makes life wonderful is all around us, all the time; we just have to focus on it-at least as much as we focus on the difficulties. So try to tune in once a day, more when you’ve misaligned your perspective.
Get Excited About What You Do
Figure out what you really want in life and go for it. Faint heart n’er won fair maiden. In fact, by suppressing rather than exploiting stress energies, faint heart becomes a prime candidate for a heart attack. Channel all that energy into something you love. Emulate investment mogul Warren Buffett. When asked about retirement during a lecture at the University of Washington Business School with billionaire buddy, Bill Gates, Buffett replied, “I plan to quit working five years after I’m dead.” He’s having way too much fun to retire.
Exercise is Key
Exercise is key to enhancing our ability to convert stress energy into optimal mental and physical health. Research conducted at the USDA’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University demonstrates that without exercise: muscle mass shrinks, strength declines, basal metabolic rate slows down, body fat percentage goes up, aerobic capacity drops, blood-sugar tolerance decreases, harmful LDL cholesterol increases, risk of high blood pressure increases, bone loss accelerates, and the body loses its ability to regulate its internal temperature. A body this physically compromised will not be able to respond well to the challenges issued daily by all the stressors in our lives. Three hours spread throughout your week including both aerobic and strength training is the minimum prescription. Take this time for yourself; you’re worth it! (Evans & Rosenberg, Biomarkers, Fireside Books, Simon and Schuster: NY)
In a study of 38 married women, researchers at Ohio State University College of Medicine found that a good marriage was significantly associated with better immune function, including the percent of helper T-cells and ratio of helper to suppressor lymphocytes. Pets as well as people can provide the love and companionship that improves our health. The survival rates of persons who have experienced heart attacks are higher for those who have pets waiting for them at home. Hospitalized patients with pets tend to recover faster and go home sooner. In people with hypertension, the presence of a pet has been shown to significantly lower blood pressure. (Citations: Medalie JH, Goldbourt U. Angina pectoris among 10,000 men,II: Psychosocial and other risk factors.American Journal of Medicine, 60,1976, p.910-921; Kiecolt-Glaser J. Clinical pychoneuroimmunology in health and disease: Effects of marital quality and disruption. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, San Francisco; Messini P. Panel on pets as social support. Meeting of the Pacific division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, San Francisco.)
The Game Plan for Effectively Using Stress
- Recognize that stress is not the enemy; it’s a signal that we need to make things better and provides us with both the energy and impetus to do so.
- Learn the art of optimistic appraisal-try to confront your fears directly, so you can start thinking about how to solve the problems with more pragmatism and less pessimism.
- Take some action to change the external problem, if change is possible. If the problem is something you must accept, see if you can transform it into an opportunity for personal growth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who described his experiences in Letters and Papers from Prison (Macmillan: NY, 1953), used his internment in a Nazi concentration camp to reach a level of human dignity, compassion and love for others very few human beings have attained. Each of us, albeit hopefully in a much smaller way, will face our own trial by fire. What we choose to make of it will define who we are.
- Channel stress-engendered energy into exercise, prayer or mind/body techniques such as relaxation training, meditation or biofeedback, any of which will improve your health and your ability to shape your own destiny.
Herbal and Nutritional Help for Stress
Too stressed out to even think about trying any of the above? In a variety of ways, the following herbs and nutritional strategies support physiological systems under stress. With their help, you’ll soon be ready to try some of the mind/body strategies outlined above.
The Ginsengs. Both panax ginseng (Korean ginseng) and Siberian ginseng(Eleutherococcus senticosus) have been shown in numerous studies to support adrenal function and enhance resistance to stress. Both ginsengs are effective “adaptogens,” which means they restore balance, stimulating a function when it is low, subduing it when high. Both can be used to restore vitality, increase feelings of energy and well being, increase mental and physical performance, ameliorate the negative effects of stress and enhance the body’s response to stress, offset the negative effects of cortisone, enhance liver function, and protect against radiation damage. Both ginsengs delay the onset and reduce the severity of the initial fight-or-flight response to stress that triggers the adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline and other stress hormones.
Panax ginseng, the more potent ginseng, is the best choice if a person has long been under a great deal of stress, is recovering from a long illness, or has taken corticosteroids (e.g. prednisone) for a long period of time. Dosage: 500 mg a day of ginseng root powder containing 5% ginsenosides
Siberian ginseng is most helpful when a person has been under mild to moderate stress and has less obvious impaired adrenal function. Dosage: 100 mg three times a day of standardized extract containing 1% eleutherosides (the active constituent in Siberian ginseng)
Valerian. Too keyed up to sleep? Clinical studies have substantiated valerian’s ability to relieve insomnia, decreasing time needed to fall asleep, night awakenings and grogginess the next morning, while increasing deep sleep Stages 3 and 4. (Murray, Pizzorno, Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Revised 2nd edition, Prima: Rocklin, CA, p. 607-8.)
Kava. Several European countries have approved kava preparations for the treatment of nervous anxiety, insomnia, and restlessness on the basis of detailed pharmacological data and clinical studies. In several double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, patients given a kava extract containing 70% kavalactones experienced significant reduction in symptoms of anxiety, including feelings of nervousness, heart palpatations, chest pains, headache, dizziness, and gastric irritation. No side effects were reported. In fact, kava actually improved mental function and did not promote drowsiness. Dosage: 45 to 70 mg of kavalactones three times daily. (Murray, Pizzorno, Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Revised 2nd edition, Prima: Rocklin, CA, p. 255-9.)
Glandular Adrenal Support Formulas
Responding to stress places constant demands on our adrenal glands. Prolonged stress can exhaust adrenal reserves of glucocorticoid hormones (cortisol, corticosterone, cortisone) which play a critical role in the body’s ability to utilize glucose, reduce inflammation and prevent allergic reactions. Hypoglycemia, the feeling of being overwhelmed or exhausted, and reduced resistance to allergies and infection are all signals of insufficient glucocorticoids. Supplement formulas containing adrenal gland extracts along with adrenal supportive nutrients like vitamin C, potassium, glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice), B vitamins, and zinc have been shown in clinical trials to significantly aid in restoring normal adrenal function.
Eliminate refined carbohydrates. Both sugar and white flour contribute to hypoglycemia.
Eliminate or restrict intake of caffeine and alcohol. Both caffeine and alcohol produce chemical stress on the body. In sensitive individuals, caffeine can produce symptoms of depression, nervousness, irritability, recurrent headache, heart palpitations, and insomnia. People prone to feeling stressed and anxious are often sensitive to caffeine. Alcohol increases adrenal hormone output, and interferes with normal brain chemistry and sleep cycles. When 90 healthy male volunteers were given either alcohol or placebo, those receiving alcohol experienced significant increases in anxiety scores. (Chou T. Wake up and smell the coffee. Caffeine, coffee, and the medical consequences. West J Med 157:544-53; Montiero MG et al. Subjective feelings of anxiety in young men after ethanol and diazepam infusions. J Clin Psychiatry 51:12-6.)
Increase intake of potassium by increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables. Adequate potassium levels are necessary for proper adrenal function. Most Americans have a dietary potassium-to-sodium ratio (K:Na) of less than 1:2. Most researchers recommend a dietary ratio of at least 5:1 for health. Most fruits and vegetables have a K:Na ratio of over 100:1. (Pizzorno & Murray. Chapter on Stress Management in revised edition of A Textbook of Natural Medicine, in press, Churchill Livingstone: London, England)