Psych-talk with Dr. Mike: Managing stress before it manages you

Part I. A psychologist once described Israel as a "natural stress laboratory." Do you have the symptoms?

dr mike 88 (photo credit: )
dr mike 88
(photo credit: )
Psychologist Norman Millgram once described Israel as a "natural stress laboratory," attributing this to the recurring wars, terrorist attacks, dramatic changes in ethnic demography brought about by large numbers of new immigrants and other trends in Israel's dynamic and rapidly changing society. Other experts say that many factors combine to generate a great amount of stress in Israel. Some of these factors include economic pressures, high taxes, and economic uncertainties. There are certain groups, the poor, the elderly, the unemployed and families with large numbers of children, that are at a higher risk of stress-related problems. Today, no health authority would deny a link between stress and disease. In fact, most current medical textbooks emphasize a 'holistic' view of disease and attribute from 50 to 70 percent of illnesses to stress-related origins. What is stress? In the early days of stress research, the focus was on viewing stress as a physiological response to outside events. The father of stress theory, Hans Seyle, viewed stress as the body's overuse of adrenaline and other hormonal responses to stress events. Enough stress could lead to total physiological and psychological exhaustion, bringing on illness and even collapse by the organism. A later generation of stress researchers became interested in the external triggers that affect people's lives. Therefore the pendulum swung from a response definition of stress towards examining the stimulus side of the stress equation. Stress as a stimulus placed more emphasis on the importance of understanding the external stressors in people's lives. These stress events are categorized according to their duration, quality, and cumulative effect. In other words some stressors were short and intermittent like sitting next to a smoker or unable to buy your newspaper because the store closed down. These short stressors are rarely harmful because their impact is felt for only a short time. However, longer lasting stressors provide a more powerful impact because of their long duration that can wear a person down (e.g., a period of work overload). At the more extreme end of the duration continuum are severe stress situations or chronic events that last for months and years, such as prolonged illness or chronic pain, inordinate and sustained demands in a work situation, or being in an abusive relationship. Some stressors can be viewed by their transitional character like changing jobs, or moving to a new home. Other stressors have more to do with qualitative characteristics, the degree of impact rather than their duration. Examples include catastrophic events such as war, terrorism, and loss of a job. However, during the 1970's, another interesting shift in thinking took place in the minds of stress researchers. Researchers began to note that the vast majority of people describing their job and family stress triggers were more effected by a cumulation of trivial episodes like running out of coffee and who's turn is it to buy it, who's turn is it to do the dishes, the problem with the computer, the car not functioning properly, and/or not being able to find one's keys. These daily hassles or emotional nuisances were found to be cumulative, building up and depositing inside people a reservoir of bodily and emotional tensions. The daily hassles in everyone's lives help us understand why even people not experiencing major crises complain that they are under stress. But, why is it that some people seem to be more affected by daily hassles and other stressful events than others. This very question shifted stress theory away from a narrow focus on either the organism's response to stress or the classification scheme of stress events and for the first time, psychologists took a deeper and more serious look at the role of the person as a mediator in dealing with stress. The key question is whether the individual recognizes the stress when it is occurring and can produce an appropriate coping response to effectively manage the stress, thereby managing more effectively demands which are placed on the individual. In other words, modern stress theory emphasizes the adaptational ability of the person to cope with stress and the negative consequences if the person is unable to cope effectively. In giving an adequate definition of stress, it's important to also distinguish between positive stress (eustress) and negative stress (distress). Usually distress is longer in duration. Short amounts of stress that help you perform better or warn you of danger are good. It is when the stress response continues over longer periods of time that it can be negative. What are the signs of stress? Your body is smarter than your brain. When it comes to identifying stress, your body sends signals to your brain telling it to take action. Researchers have discovered that the human beings can manifest stress in their bodies in 1,200 ways. It is vital for you to know what some of the symptoms are for you. While any of the symptoms listed below may have possible medical origins that should be checked out by a physician, the list delineates the most common symptoms associated with stress. The following are just a few of the signals. Physical signs Cold/Sweaty Palms Nightmares Muscle Tightness Insomnia Headaches/Migraines Change in Appetite Rapid Heartbeat Indigestion/Nausea Clenching Jaws, Grinding Teeth Ulcers Chronic Fatigue Diarrhea and/or Constipation Hypertension Frequent Urination Dryness of the Throat and Mouth Dizziness Nervous Ticks Increased Blood Pressure Loss of sexual interest Allergy Flare-ups Stuttering Hyperventilation Shortness of Breath Emotional/behavioral signs After the body has done its job in telling you that you are "under stress," it then relies on your brain to take action. If you ignore the body's signals you are more likely to experience negative stress (distress) If these conditions last for too long you may experience some of the following conditions: Low Self Esteem Impaired Judgment Irritability and/or moodiness Indecisiveness Loss of Objectivity Anxiety and Insecurity Impulsive Behavior Paranoia Prone to accidents Job Dissatisfaction Propensity for Errors Boredom and Depression Short Tempered Loneliness Tunnel Vision Inability to Concentrate Forgetting Loss of Creativity Tunnel Vision Increased smoking or use of alcohol Diseases that are directly affected by stress The diseases of adaptation are sometimes referred to as "postponable diseases," because lifestyle factors account for and play a big part in their etiology and development. Below is a list of some of the diseases where stress is considered to be a major contributing factor: Arteriosclerosis Heart Disease Rheumatic and Rheumatoid Arthritis Inflammatory Diseases of the Skin Kidney Diseases Ulcers Allergic and Hypersensitivity Diseases Nervous and Mental Illness Some Sexual Dysfunctions Various Digestive Disorders Diabetes Reduced Immunity to Disease Seizure Disorders Next week we will look at proven stress management and relaxation techniques that will help you to manage stress. Dr. Mike Gropper is an American trained psychotherapist and marital therapist, and the director of SmokeQuitters ( Contact him at Golan Center, Ahuza 198, Ra'anana, (09) 774 1913, or Shalom Mayer Center, Diskin Street 9A, Kiryat Wolfson, Jerusalem, (02) 563 6265, Previous columns:
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