A recently released scientific analysis of stress over time suggests there’s more stress in people’s lives today than 25 years ago.
Stress increased 18 percent for women and 24 percent for men from 1983 to 2009, according to the study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“We found a lot of things that were quite interesting, and some surprising,” said psychologist and lead author Sheldon Cohen, director of Carnegie Mellon’s Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity and Disease.
“ … We found associations that were extraordinarily reliable over that period of time — for example, that stress was higher in women than men, that it decreased with increasing age, decreased with increasing education. All those things were the same in 1983 as they were in 2009.”
We asked local experts with different perspectives to tell you what you should know about understanding and managing stress.
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s normal physical response when a person feels threatened or upset, said Dr. Paul Yang, a board-certified family practice doctor at Liberty Pointe Primary Care in Liberty Twp., a part of the Kettering Physician Network.
There are two kinds of stress: eustress and distress, according to James P. Perry, CEO of Mental Health Services for Clark and Madison Counties Inc. in Springfield, who has a doctorate in social work.
“Eustress is a positive experience that gives us vigor, hope, satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment,” Perry said.
“We need eustress in our life. Distress has negative connotations, and it can lead to physical health problems, psychological issues like anxiety, social withdrawal and depression.”
Jane Perri, a practicing Buddhist who has a doctorate in international business, is the spiritual director and dharma teacher at Rissho Kosei-kai, Dharma Center of Dayton, a Buddhist learning center, library and bookstore.
“Stress is the inability to see things as they really are, which can result in physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual damage to ourselves and those around us,” Perri said.
Causes of stress
When a person feels threatened, the body responds automatically with a “fight or flight” reaction, according to Yang.
“It is your body’s way of protecting itself from danger and harm,” he said.
Simply experiencing life causes stress, Perry said.
“The preschool child must leave parents and attend kindergarten and experience new challenges without close parental support,” he said.
“The high school graduate often leaves home and experiences a first taste of independence. Some people take on mortgages for the first time; people start new jobs, get married and have children, all of which can produce distress or eustress. Living life through the developmental changes and challenging life events like our present day economic problems put pressure on people to resolve issues successfully and make productive choices.”
According to Perri, stress is caused by one’s inability to detach from something.
“Often the primary culprit is our own ego,” she said of the inability to detach. “We want what we want, when we want it. We do not want things to change around us, but we are powerless to stop change. We want others to see things our way without having to see it their way. … Instead of recognizing that it is the other person that is having the problem, we let our ego make it about ourselves and thereby ruin our day, too.”
Signs of stress
Emotional signs of stress are moodiness, irritability, worrying, self-doubt, insomnia, depression, quick temper, agitation and a feeling of being overwhelmed or lonely, Yang said.
Physical symptoms include aches and pains, diarrhea, constipation, nausea, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, chest pain, low sex drive, frequent colds and illnesses, he said.
Behavioral symptoms include appetite change, too much or too little sleep, isolation, using substances such as alcohol, cigarettes and drugs to relax, avoiding responsibilities, or nervous habits like nail biting and pacing, according to Yang and Perry.
Perri said the first sign of stress is a sense of uneasiness.
Then, blood pressure begins to rise and the heartbeat quickens, she said.
The third sign is an inability to let go of a thought, compulsively replaying a scenario over in one’s mind, she said.
“If you cannot detach from the situation to let it go, and you continue to fixate on it, eventually you will feel a knot, tightening somewhere in your body,” Perri said. “ … After awhile, if the emotions are not resolved, we will cause physical damage to that area of our body.”
Effects of stress
Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems in every part of your body, raising blood pressure, suppressing the immune system, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speeding up aging, Yang said.
Stress can lead to psychological disorders, Perry said.
Common psychological disorders include mood disorders, depression, anxiety disorders like panic attacks, phobias, obsessions and post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.
Some try to cope with stress by self-medicating, often choosing alcohol, cannabis or opiates, which creates more stressors, Perry said. Others develop personality disorders, he said.
“Go to a hospital and look around you,” Perri said about the effects of stress. “That is what stress can do to you. … It lowers the immune system and allows bugs to run amok in our bodies.”
How much stress is too much?
The stress threshold varies by person, Yang said.
“Some people thrive on stressful situations, and yet others can feel overwhelmed with a small obstacle or frustration,” he said. “One’s ability to tolerate stress depends on a number of factors, including the quality of one’s relationships, general outlook on life, emotional intelligence and genetics.”
Too much stress causes interruptions in meeting one’s responsibilities, according to Perry.
“Life can be evaluated by reviewing how one performs in their work, play and love life,” he said. “ … Too much stress causes symptoms which interfere with meeting life responsibilities.”
Perri said “one nanosecond” of stress is too much.
How to relieve stress
Family physician Dr. Paul Yang’s tips
• “Regular physical exercise helps. The body produces endorphins during exercise that produce a natural high that help one’s coping mechanism.”
• “A healthy diet with many fruits and vegetables, whole grains and less fat is helpful.”
• “Limiting caffeine and sugar makes a big difference.”
• “Drinking alcohol in moderation — one to two drinks a day — is important.”
• “Some medications can aggravate stress symptoms. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about what you are taking.”
Mental health services leader James P. Perry’s tips
• “Share your feelings with others whom you trust.”
• “Accept what can’t be changed; be flexible and don’t be overly critical.”
• “Take one thing at a time by picking one urgent task and working on it.”
• “Don’t try to be superman or superwoman.”
• “Get in touch with your spirituality and listen to your soul.”
Buddhist Jane Perri’s tips
• “Take responsibility for your own stress; you caused it and you can eliminate it.”
• “Change your attitude; stop clinging to material things, image, status, sense of what is yours.”
• “Release your anger, and forgive everyone who you feel wronged you. Release your guilt and apologize to everyone you wronged.”
• “Stop living in the past, worrying about what you did or did not do. Stop worrying about the future, because it has not yet been written. The present moment is the only time that matters.”
• “Instead of making everything about you, dedicate your life to helping others relieve their pain and stress.”
• “Meditation will also help. The point is to quiet your mind so that you can get a break from the incessant chatter that causes stress. If you focus on your breath and linger a bit longer at that point in your breathing cycle that feels most relaxed, then you will feel calmer after a few minutes.”
• “Laugh. As soon as a stress provoking event occurs, laugh within five seconds.”
• “Stop watching TV shows that glorify the worst of humanity. Even though you know it is acting (even the reality TV) the scenes of murder, hate, prejudice, pain, anger and fear still enter into every cell of our being. Stop reading and listening to those that make money off of talking about the pain of others and what is wrong with the world.”
Courtesy of Jacqui Boyle, Staff Write, Dayton Daily News