Don’t worry, it’s just stress

Learn to make a lifestyle change that balances work with play, to exercise, eat a healthy and balanced diet, and get enough sleep.

Happy people working at computer desks 521 (photo credit: Courtesy photos: Tsofen)
Happy people working at computer desks 521
(photo credit: Courtesy photos: Tsofen)
At his annual physical, Jerry, a 45-year-old insurance broker, was told that despite being a few kilos overweight, his cholesterol levels and blood sugar readings were all within normal limits, his EKG evaluation was completely normal, and that the only cause for consternation was a slightly elevated blood pressure reading his doctor would monitor before deciding whether to administer anti-hypertension medication. Nevertheless, Jerry told to his physician that he was not feeling well, had trouble falling asleep, and that although he exercised three times a week he felt quite sluggish most of the time. Jerry told his physician that his business was doing very badly, that he and his wife were constantly overdrawn at the bank, and that his oldest son, age 18, had just been drafted into a combat unit. His family physician sat down with Jerry and told him, “Your physical health is pretty good – don’t worry, it’s just stress.”
How often do people go to their family physicians complaining of chest pains, backaches or fatigue, just to be told that there is nothing wrong, “it’s just stress”? In fact, no health authority would deny the link between stress and disease. Most current medical textbooks emphasize a “holistic” view of disease and attribute between 50 percent and 70% of illnesses to stress-related factors. Moreover, according to the latest medical research, stress is not some benign diagnosis to be ignored.
The father of stress theory, Hans Seyle, viewed stress as the body’s over-use of adrenaline and other hormonal responses. Enough stress could lead to total physiological and psychological exhaustion, bringing on illness and even collapse in organisms. Stress has been linked to arteriosclerosis, heart disease and hypertension, allergic and hypersensitivity diseases, some sexual dysfunctions, diabetes, seizure disorders, inflammatory diseases of the skin, ulcers, nervous and mental illness, various digestive disorders, and reduced immunity to disease. What we learn from the scientific community is that stress levels and how we manage them play a vital role in our health. This finding applies to every age group, including the elderly.
One reason stress is such a problem is that it triggers behavioral habits such as overeating, smoking, drinking and/or other drug use, and often results in failure to exercise and not getting enough sleep.
Some people take their stress out on the road and get speeding tickets or worse, get into car accidents. Other people bring their stress home and take it out on family members. One of the biggest sources of couple and/or family dysfunction is the breakdown in communication between family members due to stress related problems. Work and careers can create stress for many people, and unless appropriate coping tools are developed, they are at risk of compromising their emotional and physical health.
CERTAINLY, STRESS is part of our lives, and while potentially unpleasant, not all stress is bad. Sometimes stress can signal a need to take action, to solve a problem or remedy a family relationship or work issue. At the same time, we do need to take breaks from it regularly.
The worst kind of stress is chronic. Psychologist Norman Millgram describes Israel as a “natural stress laboratory,” attributing this to 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. The key is to focus on stress relief every day, and not just on weekends, say stress researchers.
One of my favorite health books is Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Zebras have a lot of stress; they have to flee from lions on a regular basis. But after the crisis, they mostly just graze calmly. People, on the other hand, spend too much of their downtime worrying about the lions in their lives. So, my advice to Jerry is to make a lifestyle change that balances work with play, to exercise, eat a healthy and balanced diet, and get enough sleep.
And, if the lions in your mind are causing you to feel out of control with your stress, it is time to remember that we can reduce the risk of stress-related disease when we have an outlet for stress, some control over what’s causing us stress, the ability to anticipate stressors, and, perhaps most importantly, emotional and social support from the important people in your life.
The writer is a marital, child and adult psychotherapist practicing in Jerusalem and Ra’anana.