Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Get rest away from stress to limit the damage of chronic stress
Stress for Success
March 31, 2009

There’s good news and bad news about stress. The bad news: it can make you vulnerable to illness and disease development. The good news is simple: to protect yourself schedule more rest away from your stress. It’s what I call the easy part of stress management.

The reason that chronic stress, elevated stress that lasts for over four months, is potentially so harmful to your emotional, physical and mental health is that your mind and body are on high alert (fight/flight) too often and don’t return to a state of homeostasis or balance frequently enough. Your mind and body don’t fully recover from the assault of stress hormones, particularly cortisol. Over time too much cortisol coursing through your system leads to many afflictions.

In stress workshops I ask participants to name their ongoing symptoms and I tell them if I’ve read research that says that chronic stress can lead to these conditions. They’ll offer:
Digestive problems of all types;
Panic attacks;
High blood pressure;
Cardio-vascular problems;

My response to all is yes, stress can lead to all of these. The research doesn’t report that all conditions are caused by stress but stress can make you vulnerable to each.

Becoming an excellent stress manager also doesn’t mean that every symptom and illness will disappear. But many would or at least would improve significantly if you consistently sought a healthier balance.

So, in direct proportion to your stress schedule more rest away from it. Scheduling multiple Stress Breaks throughout your day allows your mind and body to gradually return to a state of improved balance facilitating your ability to recover from your daily dose of stress. Even if you aren’t experiencing chronic stress -- yet -- getting plenty of rest away from your anxiety enhances your resiliency so when you experience chronic stress you’ll be in better shape to handle it.

Here are the most important Stress Breaks because each channels stress energy:
Regular exercise uses up stress energy as Mother Nature intended;
Deep relaxation is physiologically the opposite of the fight/flight;
Deep breathing is physiologically the opposite of fight/flight breathing;

The best Stress Breaks for you, however, are the ones you’re most likely to practice regularly, such as:

Release stress energy through:
Time with family, loved ones;
Anything that gives you pleasure, passion and/or joy;
Tense/relax muscle groups; tense for 10 – 15 seconds, then relax and repeat;
Regular journaling, pour out your deepest thoughts and feelings;

To relax your fight/flight energy:
Sound sleep, 7 – 8 hours most nights;
Yoga, tai-chi, etc.;
Hot bath;
Power naps;

Your health, to a significant degree, is a matter of choice (along with genetics determining your vulnerabilities). You can choose stress and its accompanying hormones, when in excess leading to physical and emotional problems. Or you can choose more Stress Breaks to minimize the damage. What will it be?

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stress breaks help maintain healthier cortisol level
Stress for Success
March 24, 2009

How’s your health? Is it:
* Excellent
* Very good
* Good
* Not good
* Poor

Your answer predicts your future regarding disease and longevity more accurately than a thorough review of your medical records, according to research in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in 2006. It makes sense since you live with yourself 24/7. Just as when you drive the same car for a long time and know when something’s off, you also know when your body isn’t performing as well.

Fascinatingly, these researchers found that people who considered themselves healthier experienced a wider fluctuation of their fight/flight response. They aren’t normally stressed so when it kicks in, it's noticeable.

Those who felt less healthy didn't notice as much when their stress response kicked in because it wasn’t significantly different from how they typically felt. In other words, they had a higher level of the stress hormone cortisol all of the time, a symptom of chronic stress.

In both acute and chronic stress over 17 different hormones are released. Acute stress is generally a short-term response by the body to stress and lasts from a few minutes to a few weeks. Chronic stress occurs when stress is ongoing keeping the body on high alert month after month and is the main cause of stress-related health problems.

Stress hormones weaken your health over time when your body isn’t able to relax and recover from one stressful triggering event to the next. Those most vulnerable to the ravages of stress include:
* People with chronic stress
* Hotheads and those who are very impatient
* Those caught up in the runaway American lifestyle with entirely too much activity and not enough rest

If you belong to any one or more of these groups you may have too much cortisol in your system, which has been shown to have negative health effects from higher blood pressure to lowered immunity and inflammatory responses, from impaired cognitive performance to suppressed thyroid function to weight gain, and more.

To limit the damage of excess cortisol in your body include multiple stress breaks throughout your day. These pull you back from your Stress Cliff, where stress begins to damage you physically, mentally and emotionally. Stress breaks allow your physical body and your mind to seek an equilibrium. This can be difficult in today's runaway lifestyle when your fight/flight is triggered so frequently throughout each day without a chance to rest making it more essential to do so.

The most important stress breaks that help your body maintain healthier cortisol levels are:
* Exercise 30 – 45 minutes every other day; both anaerobic (resistance training) and aerobic (jogging or cycling);
* Deep relaxation 15 – 30 minutes daily;
* Deep breathe often throughout your day, especially when you notice that you’re stressed;

There are many more stress breaks. Next week we’ll look at some of them that can better balance your stress and relaxation responses, therefore your cortisol, which better protects you from the damage of stress.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Why chronic stress can make you sick
The fight/flight response is key to understanding the consequences of stress
Stress for Success
March 17, 2009

You’re driving down the highway when suddenly a car cuts you off almost causing an accident! You slam on the brakes, scream obscenities while adrenaline courses through your system! Your heart’s in your throat!

This is your body’s fight/flight response preparing you to defend against any and all danger—real or perceived. All survival mental and physical systems are on high alert like:
Faster heart beat
Faster, shallower breathing
Heightened vision and hearing
Muscle tension and much more

Triggering your stress response does no significant damage if your body returns fairly quickly to a balanced state to recover from the energy drain. Humans are incredibly resilient to their daily dose of stress.

The danger is that today’s fast-paced lifestyle triggers the fight/flight many times a day if not an hour leaving too many with an elevated stress response all day, most days. If your body doesn’t have time to recover from one triggering event to the next you end up in a near constant state of tension making you more vulnerable to everything from:
§ Insomnia to indigestion
§ Exhaustion to heart disease
§ Diabetes to depression and more

So, protect yourself from chronic stress, elevated stress that lasts for four months or longer, like:
§ A traumatic event like a hurricane and its aftermath
§ Chronic illness
§ Long-term care-giving
§ On-going financial stress
§ Hotheadedness and impatience
§ The American lifestyle of working entirely too much and resting far too little

Because modern stress is mostly mental, not physical, requiring mental solutions not physical attacks or retreats you have to slam on the brakes of your fight/flight energy. Over time this takes its toll on you physically and emotionally.

Much of the damage from chronic stress comes from the fight/flight hormone, cortisol. Even small hassles that aren’t worth risking your health over or simply stewing about stress contribute to the accumulation of symptoms.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, author of “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”, explains the damage of chronic stress: “No single disastrous effect, no lone gunman. Instead, kicking and poking and impeding, here and there, make this a bit worse, [make] that a bit less effective. Thus making it more likely for the roof to cave in one day.”

For example, your in-laws call; the sound of their voices sets you on edge. Do you realize that your stress response just ordered your stomach to diminish or stop digesting? Digestion isn’t essential for fighting or fleeing so it’s shut down or slowed while your heart and lungs rev up to defend against an attacking tiger. Could this explain why indigestion is so common today? Yes!

Which stressors are you spending your vital energy on? A difficult boss? Financial stress? Coping with change? Who pushes your buttons? Certainly, some of these are worth your energy, while others are not so it’s vital to pick and choose your battles.

Next week we’ll consider ways to get more rest away from your stress, the key to protecting yourself from chronic stress.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com or call 239-693-8111 for information about her workshops on this and other topics or to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Chronic stress over the economy can make you sick
Stress for Success
March 10, 2009

Humans can tolerate an incredible amount of stress. But when it becomes chronic you should be concerned about your physical and emotional health.

Collectively Americans are experiencing chronic stress right now due to the economic crisis. So does this mean some will suffer negative consequences? Probably.

We can learn from a study of post-9/11 stress and its subsequent health consequences as reported by Tony Barboza (January 8, 2008, LA Times).

After the 2001 terrorist attacks UC Irvine tracked fifteen hundred people over three years with annual follow-up surveys showing that stress and fear about terrorism after 9/11 may have caused heart problems (published in January’s Archives of General Psychiatry). Even those with no personal connection to the attacks, the majority of whom watched live television coverage, were affected.

UCI researchers linked psychological stress responses to the attacks to a 53% increase in heart problems, including high blood pressure and stroke, in the three years following 9/11. Most of those surveyed had no preexisting heart problems. The results persisted even when risk factors like high cholesterol, smoking and obesity were taken into account.

The study’s lead researcher Alison Holman, assistant professor of nursing science at UCI, said, “It seems that the 9/11 attacks were so potent that media exposure helped to convey enough stress that people responded in a way that contributed to their cardiovascular problems.” (Do you watch a lot of today’s news coverage of the economic crisis?)

Research participants were asked in online surveys to report doctor-diagnosed ailments and assess their fear of terrorism by rating how much they agreed with statements like, “I worry that an act of terrorism will personally affect me or someone in my family in the future.” (Do you chronically worry about economic ruin?)

Chronic worriers who continued to fear terrorism for several years after the attacks were the most at risk of heart problems and three to four times more likely to report doctor-diagnosed heart problems two to three years after the attacks.

These same researchers in a study released in 2002 found that 17% of the U.S. population outside New York City reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) two months after the terrorist attacks. Those with high levels of PTS symptoms in the first nine to 14 days after the attacks were more than twice as likely to report heart problems up to three years later.

What lessons can we learn to protect ourselves from today’s financial stress?
§ Limit economic news consumption;
§ Challenge chronic worrying with action steps to protect yourself:
o Suze Orman advices having backup plans in case you lose your job and/or home – including whom to move in with if the worst happens;
§ Realign your expectations to match present day reality:
o Price your home to sell if you’re under pressure;
o If you need a job take any vs. waiting for one that’s commensurate to the one you lost;
o Live within an affordable budget;

Limit the damage of chronic stress to avoid its health consequences, the topic for next week.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of Inter Action Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Stress hormone may increase appetite, weight gain
Stress for Success
March 3, 2009

When stressed, even when simply thinking stressful (angry/fearful) thoughts, you trigger your body’s physiological fight/flight reaction. The most potentially damaging of the seventeen hormones that are part of this stress response is cortisol, a glucocorticoid.

One of cortisol’s roles during stress is to provide your body with energy. So, stress might lead you to eat more due to an increased appetite. The fuel your muscles need during the fight/flight response is sugar so you crave carbohydrates when stressed.

"During the first couple of days following a stressful event, cortisol is giving you a cue to eat high-carbohydrate foods," says endocrinologist Ricardo Dr. Perfetti, M.D., Ph.D., of Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "… you (can) quickly learn a behavioral response that you feel almost destined to repeat anytime you feel stressed."

This was adaptive for our ancestors because they actually physically fought or fled from, say, attacking beasts. But we modern humans have to apply the brakes to our stress energy to keep from punching someone out or running away from them, sending stress hormones coursing through our bodies.

When you’re stressed over anything your body doesn't know that you’re not physically fighting or fleeing, so it still responds with the hormonal signal to replenish nutritional stores making you feel hungry. The resultant extra eating may cause weight gain.

So, Cortisol has become the newest excuse for packing on the pounds. However, research disagrees on whether excessive cortisol actually causes weight gain and fat deposits in your abdominal area.

Some research shows that abdominal fat causes chemical changes that can lower metabolism and increase cravings for sweets, possibly leading to additional weight gain. However, Mayo Clinic dietitian Katherine Zeratsky, RD, LD, doesn’t believe that the amount of cortisol produced by a healthy stressed person is enough to cause weight gain. She says that stress causes you to accumulate excess fat only when your body produces large amounts of cortisol due to side effects of medication or an underlying medical condition like Cushing's syndrome.

Others, like Dr. Caroline Cederquist, board certified family and bariatric physician the majority of whose patients have abdominal weight issues, believes our high stress lifestyles create cortisol-induced symptoms, including abdominal weight gain. This can also lead to higher cholesterol and blood sugar levels and elevated blood pressure, all factors for heart disease.

The research on the role of cortisol in obesity remains speculative. Blaming weight gain on stress ignores the possibility that you’ve developed a habit of eating in response to stress, a learned habit encouraged by brain chemistry that can be unlearned. Future research should settle this question. In the meantime, lower your stress, eat healthfully, exercise and avoid giving into the temptation of carbohydrates when stressed.

Here’s the bottom line to weight loss. It always has been which suggests it always will be—until a miracle weight loss treatment is invented. There are two ways to lose weight: eat fewer (and better) calories and burn more of those calories by moving your body more. Period.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of Inter Action Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization