Stress Management and Avoidance (or Where Did Our Vacations Go?)

A recent study by the Families and Work Institute gave us some very bad news—one in three American workers felt chronically overworked. The culprit? Technology—mostly those items like cell phones, Blackberries, and e-mail that enable us to be working anywhere and everywhere—and, unfortunately, all the time. It's really too bad that "being busy" has become such a status symbol (damn that Puritan work ethic), because it is clear from the scientific research that being too busy and always being "on" is detrimental to long-term physical and mental health. Don't get me wrong—hard work is both important and valuable, but working too hard for too long leads to burnout, reduced creativity, and inefficiency.

Ideas and theories abound concerning the management of stress and the modulation of the stress response. Many of these ideas revolve around some aspect of regaining "control" over the stress response, typically by attempting to control the degree of stress or make the stressor occur with predictability. Why should this make any difference—after all, a stressor is a stressor, right? Maybe not. For example, any lion charging at you from the bushes is going to be stressful, but knowing where and when that lion will charge may make the stress a bit more manageable.

We know from studies of both animals and humans that at least three factors can make a huge difference in how the body responds to a given stressor: whether there is any outlet for the stress, whether the stressor is predictable, and whether the human or animal thinks they have any control over the stressor. These three factors—outlet, predictability, and control—emerge as modulating factors again and again in research studies of stress. For example, put a rat in a cage and subject it to a series of low-voltage electric shocks (sounds pretty stressful), and the rat gets elevated cortisol levels and develops ulcers (you would too). Take another rat, give it the same series of shocks, but also give it an outlet for its stress—such as something to chew on, something to eat, or a wheel to run on—and its cortisol levels do not go up (as much) and it does not get ulcers. The same is true for humans under stress: Go for a run, scream at the wall, or do something else that serves as an outlet for controlling cortisol levels—and cortisol levels are reduced (somewhat) and many of the detrimental effects of stress are counteracted (or at least modulated).

Let's turn now to the second of the three stress modulators, predictability. Let's say that somebody woke you up in the middle of the night, put you on a plane, and then made you jump out of it at ten thousand feet. Pretty stressful, huh? This experience would certainly be accompanied by elevated heart rate and blood pressure, changes in blood levels of glucose and fatty acids, and, of course, a huge increase in blood cortisol levels. What do you think would happen if you were forced to do this every other night or so for the next few months? Far from being a stressed-out bundle of nerves, you would actually get accustomed to it—and your stress response would become less pronounced. This scenario has actually been studied in army rangers training at jump school to become paratroopers. At the start of training, the soldiers underwent enormous increases in cortisol levels during each jump, but by the end of the course, their stress responses were virtually nonexistent. By making the stressor more predictable, the stress response of each soldier was controlled to a much greater degree (though skydiving will probably never become a completely stress-free activity).

Finally, the concept of control is central to understanding why some people respond to a stressor with gigantic elevations in cortisol, while others respond to the same stressor with a much lower cortisol response. This idea has been demonstrated in rats that have been trained to press a lever to avoid getting shocked. Every time the rat gets shocked, it presses the lever, and the next shock is delayed for several minutes. If that lever is then made nonoperational, so it has no effect on the timing of the next shock, the rats still have a lower occurrence of stress-related diseases (such as ulcers and infections) because they think they still have control over the shocks. An interesting comparison can be made to people working under high-stress conditions, such as during a period of corporate layoffs. For many workers, this situation is one of high instability and low control (thus high stress), while for others, perhaps those in a department that will be unaffected by job cuts, there is much less stress (and fewer health problems).

This third stress modulator, degree ofabout control, does not mean that you need to try to gain a high degree of control over every aspect of your life—because trying to do so can actually increase your cortisol levels. Instead, for most of us, it means doing your best, as the saying goes, to control those things you can control and to accept those things you cannot change (or have no control over).

Swiss researchers at the University of Zurich's Institute of Psychology have shown that stress-management techniques can reduce stress, anxiety, and cortisol exposure in "real-life" stressful situations. According to the researchers, the importance of daily stress management cannot be overemphasized because of the findings that long-term chronic stress exposure (and high cortisol) can eventually lead to an inability to mount a normal stress response (and, thus, to a suppressed cortisol level). Canadian psychology researchers at the Alberta Cancer Board have shown that "mindfulness-based stress reduction" (yoga, meditation, and relaxation exercises) results in a rapid and dramatic improvement in overall quality of life, symptoms of stress, and sleep quality in women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer. German researchers have shown that people in chronic-stress states can benefit from simplified stress-management approaches, such as weekly yoga classes, which result in improvements in cortisol levels and psychological measures of stress, well-being, vigor, fatigue, and depression.


Shawn Talbott

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