As if we don’t have enough to worry about, scientists recently discovered that psychological stress directly contributes to the brain lesions that cause Alzheimer’s disease. This finding adds to a growing list of stress-related disorders, including fatigue, heart disease, obesity, insomnia, digestive problems, decreased immunity, increased risk of autoimmune diseases, flaring up of eczema, psoriasis, acne … and a protracted, ugly, fat, and painful death.
Perhaps that’s a bit dramatic. I certainly don’t want to stress you out. And if you’re a stress prone person, I probably did. I mean, the last thing you want to hear when you’re stressed out is that you’re contributing to your own demise.
But information overload, in the form of anxiety-inducing news and input, is certainly one of the reasons we Americans are being driven to our wits’ end. There you are, Sunday afternoon, trying to wind-down with chamomile tea in hand, favorite magazine in lap. But then, on the cover of this well-intentioned but totally alarmist women’s magazine are titles that make you freak: “Sunscreen Alert!” (Crap! Did I forget to put sunscreen on this morning?), “Doing it All? (Oh my god, I am! Or worse, Oh my god, I’m not!), “Protect Yourself From Toxic People!” (How? What If One of Them?!), and the old stand-by, “Breast Cancer: Are You at Risk?” (Boobs! I am going to lose my boobs!)
Magazines can make you want to bury your head in the sand, but they’re nothing compared to the daily news. I am consistently, without fail, stressed out and agitated by current news. There’s global warming (ahh!), there’s the war (terrible!), and there’s Dick Cheney, who, no matter what he says, or wears, or does, always makes me want to put my head in the oven. On broil!
This constant rise in blood pressure makes a once useful system a commonplace foe. Stress used to play a good role in our bodies, releasing endorphins so we could run away from dinosaurs or so we could lift a boulder off our baby Neanderthal when one came tumbling down a hill. But now, if we’re overworked, or underfinanced, or dealing with personal problems, our stress system is constantly activated and causes major havoc. Instead of a short-term “fight or flight” response, it’s become an everyday “work no perk” accumulation of frazzled physiology and adrenalin in overdrive. Our bodies get worn down and we’re more susceptible to the host of diseases listed above. And that was the short list.
Chronic disease is not the only way our bodies force us into an early retirement. Sometimes we just have meltdowns. In graduate school, I started to get stress-induced migraines, which, as anyone that’s had a migraine can tell you, cause immeasurable pain and discomfort. These basically force you to chill out and sit in a dark room for the rest of the day. Migraines, however, were no comparison to the stress/anxiety induced panic attack I once had. I thought a) I was going to die b) I was going insane c) I was going to poop my pants. None of which I did, but it scared me enough to head to straight to a meditation center to rapidly begin the study of Zen inspired relaxation.
But fear is not always the best personal motivator for stress reduction. In fact, it’s somewhat counterproductive. The more you think about stress contributing to your various stress related disorders, the more you worry about trying to relax. Jeez, I should really learn to chill. I need to take more time for myself, find balance, meeelllooowww out. Calm. Down. Now. BUT I CAN’T! NO TIME! WHY ISN’T THIS MEDITATION SHIT WORKING! And then you realize the time you just spent trying to relax could’ve been spent doing something else, so you go back to running around, or drinking five beers in order for your brow to un-furrow and your shoulders to come down from their heightened position up by your ears.
While we all know some stress relievers—going for a walk in the woods, or a run in the park, or sitting quietly to meditate—are good things to do, we usually do them because they feel good and we want to do them. If we did them because we’re worried about how the daily stress will ultimately destroy our lives, chances are they wouldn’t be fun anymore. Action motivated by fear leads to guilt and anxiety when you’re not able to do that action; action motivated by fear also leads to big wars in the Middle East. It’s bad news on all fronts.
And sometimes stress is just self induced. The normal pressures of daily life might be a lot, but sometimes we stoke the fire that pushes us over the top. Like listening and being too worked up by the news. (Guilty as charged.) While it’s good to be educated in current affairs, and feel motivated to want to see positive change in your life and in the world, what, exactly, does knowing that stress causes brain plaques in genetically modified mice do for you?
Probably not a whole hell of a lot. So when I’m particularly stressed out, I try to avoid the news and headlines, at least for awhile. Turn off the TV, don’t read or listen to the news, don’t pick up an alarmist magazine, and forget about the first sentence of this article. In fact, I’m sorry I ever wrote it. If you’re an extremely busy, high anxiety person, I promise you won’t die from Alzheimer’s. I mean, if you’re really that worked up by stress, I’m sure a heart attack will get you first.
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