John has just been given the prospect of starting a new business overseas. He sits around moping; the idea of moving into alien territory fills him with dread, worry and anxiety. Fearful of losing this opportunity, yet unable to make up his mind about really wanting it, he makes no decision. Four weeks later, he comes down with pneumonia.
Jim has been given the same prospect. He is excited by the idea, but worries about leaving a secure and profitable niche here at home. He lists the pros and cons of the venture, goes over them, carefully weighing each item before coming to the decision that the benefits of the business abroad far outweigh the fears he has now. He bristles with excitement. Galvanized, he plunges into action. He feels alert and energetic, ready to tackle the challenge of a new opportunity.
John is a perfect example of how negative stress can make you sick. Jim, on the other hand, is a perfect illustration of what we don't usually hear about-- that stress can sometimes be good for you.
Consider what happens to your body when your brain senses a crisis. Immediately, it sends chemical messages that alert the body to prepare for action. The hypothalamus passes a command to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, a hormone which stimulates the liver to convert amino acids into glucose, a primary fuel for energy production. Cortisol also mobilizes and increases fatty acids in the blood to be used as fuel for energy production, plunging the body into action so that the body's natural resistance and endurance thresholds are enhanced.
At the same time, the bone marrow increases production of blood cells to carry extra oxygen to help fight infection. The thyroid gland secretes hormones to speed up metabolism, providing instant energy boost. The lungs expand to deliver more oxygen to the muscles and heart. Your whole body is on alert; it becomes productive and focused. You think faster, with greater clarity. Your awareness sharpens; reaction time quickens. Your pain receptors are dimmed temporarily by the rush of hormones, sometimes to the point that allows you to perform almost superhuman feats like those we've heard of in the news--a 105 lb woman being able to lift up a boulder to release a trapped child.
Research tells us that occasional stress can be good for you; it boosts the immune system's defense against infection; it stabilizes mood so you can deal with emotional and physical trauma. A life on automatic pilot can often be jolted to awareness by stressful events.
Stress is only problematic when stressful episodes turn repetitive and overwhelming. Sustained stress is the harmful stress we hear about. The cortisol that is released to prepare your body for action becomes a dangerous enemy when it floods the system. By stimulating the production of glucose, prolonged release of cortisol leads to a problematic increase of blood sugar. Too much cortisol also decreases the body's ability to synthesize protein; it increases protein breakdown which can lead to muscle wasting and osteoporosis; it suppresses the sex hormones and depresses the immune system.
As with most situations in life, handling stress is a balancing act. If we return to John's situation, we can see that John's fear is crippling him from being the best he can be. He is literally frozen by a fear that prevents him from taking risks and experiencing the (good) stress that will make him grow emotionally and intellectually. Jim's reaction is much more positive, allowing him to take the chance at something that could be very rewarding in the long run.
How can we become more like Jim than John?
1. Break the cycle of prolonged stress by spending time each day "de-stressing." Consider the use of meditation, guided imagery and visualization. Studies now show that practicing meditation can reduce blood vessel constriction, keeping blood pressure in check. People who meditate 10 -20 minutes a day have been able to maintain low levels of stress hormones for several hours after each meditation session.
2. Exercise is a powerful stress buster. It lowers overall cancer rates; it increases bone thickness and bone mass. It releases endorphins that make us more relaxed, spontaneous and self-accepting. It energizes the body and increases the alpha (feel-good) brain waves that diminish stress.
3. Laughter breaks up routine and discomfort. It allows you to look at yourself as an "outsider." Keeping this third-party, witnessing rather than experiencing perspective also gives you the chance to review the stressful situation in a new light. Nothing lightens the body and mind more than a good belly laugh!
4. Writing is definitely cathartic. Keeping a journal gives you the chance to explore your deepest anxieties. In Jim's case, he took the initiative to write down his worst fears and discovered in the process of doing so that the risks are worth his engagement.
5. Eating a well-balanced diet with a good source of vegetable proteins like Soy or Wheat, 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables, 3-4 servings of "good fats" (fish oils, sardines, salmon, nuts, legumes) will bolster your body's defenses against stress.
6. Last but not least, Love. Whether the object of your love is a person or pet, the act of love, touching, interacting with a loved one does wonders to the heart and to the body's immune system.