Even with all of our medical advances, stress-related illnesses are at a record high. It appears that humans are very good at the art of getting sick.
THE PROBLEM: Chronic stress is a human invention. According to Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, our bodies can handle acute stressors, like being chased by a lion or speeding to claim the empty parking space, but we were not made to handle prolonged psychological stressors like traffic, work deadlines, sales quotas, mortgages, difficult in-laws, and first dates. Our hearts are overtaxed. Our bodies cannot find balance. The aging process is the progressive loss of our body’s ability to deal with stress.
THE RESULTS: Stress is a stew of anger, fear, frustration, anxiety, disappointment, and even boredom, causing biochemical reactions in our bodies. Our bodies can absorb and even use these chemicals in short spurts. Yet over time we create the condition of chronic stress, which wreaks havoc on our metabolism, raises blood pressure, weakens the immune system, gives us gas, increases allergies, ruins our sex lives, and eventually damages our brains.
Even if you are a master at suppressing your emotions, this only means that you do not recognize the quiet war they are raging in your body.
THE DILEMMA: Using self talk to ignore stressful circumstances can help in the short run. But if the disappointment continues, the illness worsens, the relationship turns hostile, or the job responsibilities grow too big, the rebound affect of depression or anger is often worse than the initial stressor. Denial and optimism are not the same.
Often people just give up, creating a state of “learned helplessness” due to a perceived lack of control and of hope for a better future. They quit trying to make things better. They lose their joy for life.
It’s clear the world is not going to slow down, machines are not going to make life easy, and we cannot surround ourselves only with people we adore. So what can we do to create a healthy and happy mental life-style?
THE SOLUTION: We have to become conscious about the emotional reactions we are creating by our thoughts. We have to recognize when we are falling victim to road rage, jealousy, resentment, and fear. Then we need to:
- differentiate real from imagined threats.
- determine what circumstances are within our personal control to change and what are not so we can focus on our locus of control.
- consciously look for the good in situations instead of focusing on the bad.
- make sure we have a strong support system of both family and friends.
- engage in activities that release frustration such as dancing, sports, playing music, and breathing (relaxed deep breathing is the quickest way to shift the body out of a stressful response).
- shift emotional states to gratitude, confidence, appreciation, love, hope, calm, and trust (not only do we alter the body’s chemistry, but these emotions trigger neurochemicals that help the brain to remember, making learning new responses easier).
This is not easy work. We know what is the right thing to do, but it does not flow naturally into doing the right thing. Our complex human brains are often controlled by our base needs and motives, and our emotional reactions.
We have to practice healthy emotional responses until they are learned. As with learning any skills, repetition is essential. Over time, the brain will remember, and your body will thank you by glowing.