More than news headlines, what gives me stress is reading about stress. It makes me hostile, sleepless, restless, overeat and break into spots, all worries — except the spots — that add to existing stress and push me closer to disease and death.
Stress does not cause any single disease,
not even ulcers, as previously believed. Australian researchers Barry J Marshall and Robin Warren won the 2005 Nobel Prize in medicine for showing that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) caused ulcers, not stress.
Stress makes several diseases much worse, largely because it suppresses the immune system, increasing risk of infections. From headaches and colds to the more debilitating diabetes, heart attacks, depression and impotence, stress has been linked to almost everything that can mess up our lives.
Studies in the west are now showing that as much as genes and smoking, it's stress that determines the quality of your life and how long you live. And more than long working hours, night-shifts or threats of downsizing, it's personal conflicts at the workplace that add to stress.
What's more, stress is contagious and can affect those around you. Parents carry on-job stress home and pass on their worries to their children, causing them to burn out at school.
Burnout symptoms in children included tiredness, a sense of inadequacy as a student and cynicism about the value of schooling.
Walking away from stress, or at least brooding about worries, is not easy, but the payoffs are worth it. One way to fight stress is by using the relaxation response technique, developed in the 1970s at Harvard Medical School by cardiologist Dr Herbert Benson. To counter the stress response, he proposes achieving a state of profound rest through progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and yoga.
Meditation shows heartbeat and respiration, forcing the body's oxygen consumption to drop along with levels of blood lactate — lactic acid that appears in the blood when oxygen delivery to the tissues is not enough to support normal metabolism — linked to panic attacks.
A recent study at the University of Chicago showed that a 10-minute meditation session improved the averages of people taking high-stake math exam. It pushed up their scores by five points, because, explained study author Sian Beilock, it helped them focus on the math by freeing their brains from stressful thoughts.
Sleep helps, but alcohol doesn't. One sleepless night — whether spent online, reading or working shifts — can spike stress hormones and make it harder for you to sleep when you actually want to. Alcohol makes your mind feel relaxed but plays havoc with your biological response: blood alcohol levels over 0.1 per cent (one large whisky or vodka) makes your stress hormones work overtime, making you feel tired and listless.
Hanging out with friends and family — over a cup of herbal tea, not alcohol works best. Several studies in the US and Europe have shown that people with fewer family and close friends have shorter life expectancies, with loners experiencing the stress of loneliness equivalent to a lifetime of smoking.
And, corny as this may sound, it helps to confront your fears. The Tamil Nadu government used crayons and yoga to help young tsunami-survivors overcome the terror of the killer wave that wiped their families and homes in 2004. All the images the children drew initially were dark — gloomy skies, flooded villages, uprooted trees, dead people and animals — but at the end of three weeks, the sun started shining. And the children were back to playing cricket on the beach.
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