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19 February 2007
Stress Busting
by Serena Mackesy

Given the way lottery tickets are marketed - all your financial problems solved, never worry again, lovely holidays - one of the grand ironies confronting the Lottery Winner is how often they end up ill and unhappy. That's because a lottery win is a good example of the sort of radical, out-of-control life change that is classically related to stress; and long-term stress, whatever the source, comes with a huge number of physical disorders attached.

Stress - or more accurately, our response to it - is one of those things which illustrate how the human body can sabotage itself with the very mechanisms it has developed to help it survive. The short-term symptoms of acute stress - raised heart rate, sweaty palms, palpitations, muscular tension, headache, migraine, digestive problems - are all offshoots of the raised arousal state of the fight-or-flight response. When faced with a sabre-toothed tiger, your body benefits greatly from an injection of adrenalin, raised blood-pressure increasing the flow of oxygen to the muscles and the diversion of physical resources from immediately-unnecessary functions such as digestion into more urgent abilities such as enhanced tree-climbing.

The trouble is, in the same way that no one has ever been able to measure any physiological difference between emotional arousal states such as, say, anger and sex; your body can't actually tell the difference between life-threatening stress and everyday "my boss yelled at me and I'm late for the babysitterr" stress. And long-term, your body doesn't actually like being in a heightened stress state, and responds by hitting you up with, among other things, potential heart attacks, strokes, gastrointestinal problems such as IBS, asthma, depression, anxiety, and the simple inability to enjoy life. If you're stressed, you should learn to identify it and take steps to reduce the state.

There are three identified types of stress: acute, episodic acute and chronic. Acute, the least avoidable, is the most familiar to all of us: indeed, in taking part in adrenalin sports or watching scary movies, we often actually induce the state in ourselves for pleasure; adrenalin can give you a high and endorphin rushes an even stronger high. Unless you're at risk - from, say heart attack - acute stress, while uncomfortable, isn't usually particularly harmful, although headaches, sleep deprivation and having that lasagna repeat on your for 48 hours are not exactly life-enhancing.

Episodic acute stress, however, is a different ball-game, and generally the most avoidable. To an extent, it's a self-inflicted condition. We all know people who suffer from it, even thrive on it. People who are always rushing, whose lives seem to be constantly chaotic, filled with drama, are perpetually late because they have too many things on their plate, who can't cope with the organizational demands of their lives. This type-A personality behavior often goes hand-in-hand with irritability, snappishness and aggressive, hostile behavior, which, as well as seriously affecting personal relationships, also considerably raises the risk of coronary heart disease. Another Episodic Acute type is the pessimist, the person who perpetually anticipates disaster and worries about how they're going to cope.

Symptoms shown by Acute Episodic Stress sufferers include tension headaches, migraines, hypertension, chest pain, and heart disease. The good news is that it can be treated, though it's a complicated process, requiring intervention on a number of levels, including psychological, and isn't helped by the fact that these sufferers are, generally, the most resistant to change, often seeing themselves as the helpless victims of their lifestyles rather than the progenitors of them. But if you, or someone you know, suffers frequently from these symptoms, it's worth paying attention to the fact that they can be relieved. It's a horrible way to live, popping aspirin for your constant headache. If you can do something about it, you should.

Chronic Stress - which includes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - is the real killer, and the tragic thing is that sometimes there's little the sufferer can do about it. The relentless hopelessness of poverty, dysfunctional family situations - whose effects can carry over long after the family itself has been dissolved - unhappy or abusive marriages or unbearable career situations produce it, along with the awful, daily fear and oppression that people living in war zones or under oppressive governments have to live with.

Chronic stress kills by violence, suicide, heart attack and stroke, and is thought to have causal links with some cancers. For some of these people, there really is no way out. For others, relief of stress is a matter of making huge and often terrifying life changes. But if the option is there, sufferers should grab all the help and support available to them - the first portal for which is, as with so many other things, your primary care practitioner. The change can, literally, be a life-saver.

How to spot signs of stress:
If you suffer regularly from any, or several of the following, you should consult your doctor:

  • Apathy, lack of energy
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Difficulty "keeping track" of things
  • Feeling "on edge"
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Disturbed sleep patterns (again, both markedly increased requirement as well as disruption)
  • Bursts of emotion
  • Using alcohol or drugs as props
  • Chronic back pain
  • Tension headaches
  • Neck pain
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Palpitations

Don't be afraid or ashamed to do so: stress-related disorders are so startlingly common that many people are convinced that they are "normal" or "just the way life is". They're not. Sometimes the solution can be as simple as a minor lifestyle change, or taking up a relaxation technique such as meditation, which slows heartbeat and respiration, lowers blood lactate levels, stabilises blood pressure in healthy individuals and lowers it significantly in people with hypertension. Even if this is all you do, the benefits are pretty manifest.

The Relaxation Response: Techniques for Preventing and Easing Stress is a 40-page report edited by Herbert Benson, M.D., founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute Associate and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. It is available for $16 from Harvard Health Publications.

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