Stress as a health menace

We talk a lot about good health.  Given the increasing expense of medical care, it’s understandable.  Costs seem to have no end in sight.  Mindful, health providers frequently feature free check ups to reduce future costs.  
We can do a lot to help ourselves: quit smoking; imbibe alcohol moderately, if at all; exercise; watch our weight; eat the right foods (low fat meats, lots of veggies and fruit), get a good night’s sleep.
Truth is, even these good habits may not get us there.  The heart of the problem lies not in nutrition, but in daily stress.  There’s plenty to go around these days, whether at work or at home.
I wasn’t surprised to recently see the statistics.  According to a recent National Health Interview Survey, some 75% of us experience moderate to high stress in a given two week time frame.  In fact, stress is costing companies nearly 300 billion a year in claims, lost work days and productivity.
The American Medical Association tells us that up to 60% of all illness derives from stress.  I believe the mind and body are one.  When we’re consistently stressed, our body bears the toll, whether in a weakened immune system, hypertension, or an increased acid digestive environment.  Ultimately, stress can affect our mental stability, work performance and our relationships.
But how do we lessen stress?  Here are ways that work for me.  I don’t pretend I’ve made my way past anxiety.  But these have helped me and may help you.  
1.  Changing thoughts
I’m no guru, but anxiety, my particular consequence of stress, has been a close neighbor all too long.  I don’t like its proximity, but I know it’s not going to move away.  It’s up to me to make the move.
I’ve tried medication to relieve my anxiety.  Frankly, I don’t like this route and try to avoid it since every drug, even the seemingly innocuous, has its side effects like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea.  Meds often give me that hangover effect or sense of stupor.  They can lead to kidney and liver damage and, ironically, increase the anxiety for which they’ve been prescribed.  There is now convincing research evidence they may not work for many.  User success claims may well be due to a placebo effect. Minimal result differences exist, for example, between those treated with SSRIs (anti-depressants) and those in control groups receiving placebos.
Unfortunately, modern medicine generally treats symptoms, not causes.  I believe we find healing when we root out cause factors.  I wager that our thoughts greatly define who we are and how we feel.  If I can change my thoughts, I can  minimize my anxiety-laden emotions causing my stress.  
The good news is that we can find our way back to well-being, or wholeness of mind, body and spirit.  After all, you are what you think.
2.   Exercise
It’s incredible how well our bodies function when we exercise regularly.  By exercise I mean what gets your heart pounding for a minimum 30 minutes, five times weekly.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s running, swimming, or the elliptical machine in your basement or at the gym.  LDL gets pushed down; HDL (the good stuff), goes higher; weight gain comes under control; blood pressure is lowered, etc. When I exercise, I feel better.
3.  Relaxation strategies
Lately  I’ve been turning to the East with its bottomless wisdom nurtured over centuries into a profundity often missed in our materialistic, frenzied West.  Recently, I found a book with simple yoga exercises designed for stressed people like myself.  They take only twenty minutes to do without all the twist gyrations traditionally associated with Hatha yoga, the form most practiced in the West for its physical regimen.
Yoga has its spiritual side, releasing us from everyday stresses.  When I lie on my mat and practice progressive relaxation and visualization, it helps me to divert.  When I breathe properly, that is, deeply, I can actually feel my tightened muscles relax and my mind yield to prevailing calm.  Yoga teaches me that I can transcend my worries and achieve a richer life free from angst.  Yoga frees me from reacting to the gauntlet  of pummeling circumstance. In its place comes mindfulness, the importance of living in the Now.  Through meditation, I am learning how to control my thoughts.  Detached from my anxieties, I find my worries far away, or like passing clouds in a tall sky. 
When I lie down on my mat, breathe deeply, chant my mantra, or fixation aid, my limbs  seem to have fallen through. I am become like a bird buoyed on a thermal, removed from earth, empowered for flight.
In my kindling of interest in the East I have found Qi Gong and Tai Chi buttress what Yoga does. Because of its simplicity, Qi Gong can be done in a chair. You might think of it as a take-it-with-you exercise.
 
As for Tai Chi, it’s one of China’s foremost cultural achievements.  When I think of China, I visualize multitudes of young and old, gathered in parks, invigorated by early morning coolness, anointed by the sun’s first rays, shifting their balance from foot to foot, arms moving slowly, rhthmically.
4.  Music
Shakespeare tells us that music has charms to soothe the savage beast.  I would say it a more modern way: music has capacity to heal the troubled psyche.  I think of David singing psalms before troubled King Saul. While I like many kinds of music,  I prefer classical Indian music best when it comes to fostering relaxation.  Enya also is very special.
5.  Reading
I’ve always read a lot.  At times when I cannot sleep,  I will read.  Better than a pill, it usually works.
6.  Hobbies
Nobody should be without one.  Hobbies divert, providing a way out from stress.  They also promote the best part of ourselves, the Eros (creative) rather than the Thanatos (the negative or death element.  There are two dynamics, like laws of physics, embracing the universe and individuals: one fostering creation; the other, destruction.  One is positive; the other, negative.  Hobbies foster the right choice.  I happen to indulge in gardening and studying languages.  They’ve proved unstinting in their capacity to delight me and bring peace.
7.  Social
We need each other.  Get out.  Be with others.  Like many of you, I often would prefer to stay home bound, but when I do go out, I’m usually glad I went. Besides, there are dividends.  Psychology tells us that when we connect, we’re happier and live longer.
8.  Humor
Again, Shakespeare rises to the occasion.  “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”  In short, laugh and be well. I turned on the comedy channel last week when I was emotionally fidgeting.  Shakespeare was right.
9.  Good deeds.
 
Wordsworth, that great poet of memory, tells of how recalling his acts of kindness afforded him peace despite the varied, unceasing shocks of life.  A shy person, I’m not there yet. But I’m making effort to go out and do.  To find a cause.  To engage.  Again, Shakespeare reminds us that “Joy’s soul lies in the doing.”
10. Writing
I could have included writing under hobbies, but I wanted to give it emphasis by listing it separately.  Writing offers me catharsis for pent up emotions.  But it also becomes my act of self-discovery, my journey into self-knowledge.  Writing clarifies, helps me see patterns, staves off my too often impulsiveness for making grand, sweeping generalizations and, in being superficial, to be silly.  I’m always wiser when I reflect.
11.  Quietness
I am learning to take time out.  To take time to let go.  To take time to do nothing.  I am learning  to be quiet.  To listen. To learn.

About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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