Stress, Health and Peace on Earth

By Virginia ‘Ginya’ Carnahan, APR, CPRC – Dattoli Cancer Center & Brachytherapy Research Institute

Stress, Health and Peace on EarthOMG – I missed the deadline for this article!  Quick!  Get to work writing something, anything.  Bang out a few hundred words.  I promised I’d have an article this month.  Yikes.

Wait…chill, girl.  Stop this crazy panic behavior.  Take a deep breath.  Focus.  I can do this.

Is this how you respond to last minute demands?  I think we all do, but it isn’t a healthy way to live.  When we stress, the body releases a hormone called cortisol which activates your “fight or flight or freeze” response.  All kinds of autonomic (automatic) things begin to happen in your body.  Your heart rate and breathing increase; your blood pressure rises; some muscles begin to tighten; your digestion slows and your sleep is often interrupted.

In small doses stress and its partner cortisol can help you perform under pressure.  Prolonged or constant stress, however, is not a good thing.  It can lead to physical problems as well as emotional and behavioral problems.  An overabundance of cortisol can affect your body’s natural defense against disease.  It can slow healing of injuries and cause mental dis-stress.

Some people believe that stress can cause cancer.  We won’t go that far, but we do admit that stress impacts the natural immune function which in turn provides an atmosphere conducive to disease.  A diagnosis of cancer can certainly be stressful, however.

Stress (or more accurately – “stressors”) can be different for different people.  Those with especially sensitive hearing can identify loud noises as a cause for the body’s stress reaction.  For others an impending visit from the in-laws can cause stress.  Deadlines, finances, relationships, the daily news, holidays, disorder of any description can all lead to stress.  It is good to know what things activate your personal stress response so you can fend off the negative stress reactions.

There are external and internal stressors.  The external ones are like those named above.  Internal stressors are things we often do to ourselves, such as constantly worrying, feeling pessimistic, having unrealistic expectations, being inflexible in thinking.

Symptoms of stress can manifest as physical – headaches, neck or back pain, dizziness, heartburn, stomach pain, constipation or diarrhea, loss of appetite, fatigue and insomnia.

Mental symptoms of stress include excessive anxiety, worry, guilt; anger or frustration; depression or mood swings; difficulty concentrating; forgetfulness, confusion, feeling overwhelmed.  Some overly stressed individuals will cry frequently, feel lonely or worthless, become easily irritated and may have difficulty making decisions.

Stress can even take a toll on a person’s behavior, such as losing interest in their appearance; obsessive or compulsive behavior; become defensive; have problems communicating; reduced productivity at work; increased smoking, drinking or drug use; weight gain or loss; social withdrawal, etc.

Yes, stress for many of us is an ugly thing … a dangerous thing.  Some interesting research from the University of Western Ontario suggests that even the perception of stress can have long-term
consequences.  Their study said that people who believe their stress is affecting their health in a big way are twice as likely to have a heart attack ten years later.  Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that stress was not the problem, but how we react to it is the problem.

So what are we supposed to do to avoid this heart attack ten years down the road?  It is easy enough to say “don’t let it bother you,” but not so easy to do.  We all need to develop some de-stress techniques.  You probably already know what to do – you just need to make a commitment to do it.

1.    When faced with a stress assault, stop and take a deep breath.  Center your mind. Assess the level of importance of the stressor.  (They aren’t all #1!)

2.    Prepare for stressful situations in advance. Sometimes you can predict that something may go wrong and require immediate action.  Be prepared.

3.    Keep your head!  Bite your tongue.  Count to 10.

4.    Try to fit something into every day that makes you happy!  Take a walk, listen to music, watch a comedy on TV, talk to your grandchildren on Skype!

5.    Do something every day that is good for you, such as 30 minutes of exercise that gets your heart pumping and makes you sweat.  Eat a healthy meal.  Maybe have a glass of red wine (but don’t overindulge).

6.    Learn to meditate.  It is not as easy as you might think to clear your mind.  At least spend some time alone, in a quiet space.  Go outside at night and look at the stars.  Visit the beach and watch the waves.  Don’t forget to smell the roses.

7.    If stress and/or stressors are preventing you from living a life of personal fulfillment, you may need to seek the advice of a professional.

One article I read had this advice, “It is important to learn that what matters more than the event itself is usually our thoughts about the event when we are trying to manage stress.

How you see the stressful event will be the largest factor that impacts on your physical and mental health.  Your interpretation of events and challenges in life may decide whether they are invigorating or harmful for you.”

Now – about Peace of Earth.  I wish I had the key to universal peace.  It seems that our world is in a state of greater turmoil now than I have ever experienced.  It is frightening to me to think about events of recent weeks, where clashes in beliefs have led to destruction and senseless death.  I suppose the best thing we can do as individuals is to respect each other, to build an island of peace around ourselves and as one friend advised, “love the person in front of you.”  If we all did this love and peace would reach around the globe.

Best wishes for a meaningful holiday season to all.

Dattoli Cancer Center
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