Manage Your Stress

Overcoming Stress in the Modern World

Joseph Shrand, MD, with Leigh M. Devine, MS

St. Martin's Paperbacks

chapter 1
A Response to Your World
For nearly a decade Jennifer supported herself and four kids as a shrimp-net maker. But after the oil-rig explosion in 2010 shut down Gulf fishing, Jennifer couldn’t find other work and was forced to accept charity for the first time. Her hardest moments came at Christmas when she had little to give her children. While things had been tough before, Jennifer recalls that her stress level was at least manageable. “If I only had to worry about my car breaking down here and there, I’d still be pretty happy,” she said.
For all of us, stress comes in many different packages. Jennifer’s latest stress has been brought on by a sudden, negative change in circumstances. For others, stress comes on in a traumatic way such as a car accident or death of a loved one. But routine, chronic stress that is related to work pressures, family life, and other responsibilities can, in the long run, lead to serious physical and mental health consequences if not managed properly. And this kind of stress can sneak up on you quietly and gradually.
If you’ve picked up this book because you’re thinking that stress may be getting the better of you—or possibly even making you sick—then you are in good company. As the ripple effect of the Great Recession is still being felt across the country, people are reporting both high levels of daily stress as well as acutely stressful events, brought on by the nation’s economic woes. According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2010 survey, 76 percent of the respondents cited money concerns as the number one source of stress, followed by work at 70 percent, and worries about the general economy at 65 percent. Despite their awareness of the source, only a third of those surveyed said they were doing a good job managing their stress. And the majority of children whose parents endure very high levels of stress say there is a negative impact on their families.
While it is inevitable that human beings are going to be faced with many types of stressful events throughout a lifetime—from traumatic events to daily irritants—what is not a given is how we respond to those events. We can reduce the impact of stress in our lives and on our health by understanding why we experience stress, what is going on in our brain and body, and how, in fact, we cannot live safely without stress.
Your Perception of Stress Triggers
Many people describe their stress in concrete and common ways such as work deadlines, rude drivers, argumentative coworkers, a stack of unpaid bills, being evaluated. The feelings you experience at these times tend to be negative, can put you in a bad mood, or even worse, make you angry and aggressive.
But if you look at these scenarios as a third party or a medical expert, you would see how these instances are actually individual causes or sources of the stress experience. We call them stressors or triggers. In general, they come in two varieties:
  1.   common, daily occurrences that grind down on your patience, or
  2.   unexpected events that seem to conspire against you before you’ve even gotten to work
You feel like you’ve been mentally and physically put through the wringer and, in a way, you really have. Your body has reacted to the event of being cut off in traffic almost in the same way as if a rhinoceros had charged you. When you experience a stress trigger your heart beats quickly, your palms and body sweat, blood rushes to your face, and your breathing quickens. Some stress makes us just want to run away or hide. Other times people feel charged, ready to fight after the event has passed. Sometimes people feel exhausted by it, or overwhelmed. Whatever your instinctive feeling may be in those moments, it is what you choose to do right after that stress moment that can mean the difference between a ruined or normal day.
All too often we continue to let our fear or anger from a stress trigger stew and feed upon itself. We focus on the event, replaying it, telling it to others. Few of us are taught that what is actually happening in our minds and bodies during a stress trigger is a perfectly normal and protective physiological event. Having the tools to cope and calm ourselves when we are confronted by either a chronically stressful job, or a sudden negative event will make a big difference when we experience the stress response.
In order to understand why we respond to triggers—and it happens to all of us automatically—it helps to look at the human brain and the mechanisms that trigger our stress responses. This journey takes us deep into the central workings of the human neuroendocrine system, which is responsible for the delicate interplay between our brain and the chemicals and hormones that influence how we react and respond to the world around us. Once you begin to learn about why our bodies do what they do, you’ll see how stress is a useful partner in life. Without it, we could not have survived as a species.

Copyright © 2012 by Harvard University