Headlines about the U.S. housing crash, bank troubles, suicide bombers and missing children have become all too common. Even the death of Michael Jackson unleashed a wave of depression and sadness among his fans worldwide.
Consider the avalanche of calamities culminating in the current economic downturn, the worst since the Great Depression, and you and I are on the verge of a veritable nervous breakdown. Hardly a day goes by without a major tragedy being reported.
During the past few months, I have seen my share of patients presenting with chest pains, fatigue, shortness of breath or other symptoms related to anxiety and stress. For many, it is not the big bad news that is bothersome. What happens in their daily lives is what nibbles them to death.
"I am 63 and I just lost my job, where am I going to get another one now?" one of my patients asked.
"I have to do a million things every single day, get my children ready and take them to school, go to work, then do the grocery shopping and get the dinner on the table before my husband gets home," a young mother said during a casual conversation.
In short, stress has become all too pervasive in our lives. In today's go-go society, tension runs rampant as people begin to realize that the world has changed. Many are working harder to maintain a decent lifestyle. To some, long hours and loads of work may be the way of life. But ,to others, this spells rapid burnout.
So, what is stress? ''The unpleasant feelings evoked by a perceived threat,'' would be a simple definition. During times of stress, our sympathetic nervous system secretes certain hormones like adrenalin which help us to mount an effective fight-or-flight response. This can also trigger unwanted effects creating tension in the body or mind. However, our parasympathetic system, which calms, relaxes and rejuvenates us, is turned off at this time, so you lose its balancing effect. Stress can be manifested in the form of physical ailments like chest pains, palpitations, headache or fatigue, because of the strong mind-body connection. In some, mental effects like anxiety, irritability, depression, insomnia and lack of sex drive predominate, resulting in poor performance. Stress is also a diagnosis by exclusion; make sure you are not suffering from any organic disease by consulting a doctor.
Stressful jobs have been shown to have a direct biological impact on the body. Psychological stress poses a high risk for heart attacks; this became quite obvious after 9/11. The interesting fact is that most people, especially the executives, tend to deny if anything is wrong with them. But denial won't do, nor being indifferent. One has to accept the realities of life and take action.
Stress management experts will tell you it is not so much the stress that kills you, but it is the way you react to it. In other words, the attitude matters the most. We cannot change the world, so get used to it and change yourself. Sometimes, life can be daunting with all those irritating roadblocks, incessant pressures, professional challenges and myriad constraints in your daily life. Compromises and adjustments are necessary. You need to create a work-life balance. Here are a few suggestions:
•Decide if a problem exists before you rev up your angst. Often, we react to perceived adversities that may not be even exist.
•Learn how to relax. Go for a movie or visit a friend. Or simply take a walk in the neighborhood, it can be refreshing. If you are a perennial worrywart obsessing about all the minutiae in life, some lifestyle modification is in order. You can start with meditation; take a deep breath, sit in a quiet place, close your eyes and meditate for five minutes. I do this every morning before heading for work. It helps relieve stress and enhance your inner peace and calm, giving you strength to face the day's problems. Practice yoga, a discipline widely approved as a great stress-buster and goes with meditation.
•Taking a vacation helps; you will come back refueled with more energy. Recently, my wife and I took advantage of the summer specials and went to Turks and Caicos islands in the Caribbean with my son and family. It was a well-spent week, the added attraction being the company of Anokha, our 4-year-old chatterbox granddaughter. I monitored my own blood pressure during the stay — the lowest ever in recent times!
•Pay attention to your diet and nutrition; a well-balanced diet will go a long way in preventing many diseases. Keep yourself in shape even during long travels, with a proper exercise routine. Get rid of all bad habits. Don't light up a cigarette every time you get a bad news and use alcohol only in moderation. Always say no to drugs.
• Stay interested in others and be part of a support group in your community. Volunteering for a good cause connects you with people and can uplift your spirits. It is good to have a close friend or confidante to give you a little counseling during periods of stress. Or you can get professional help. Inculcating a little spirituality always helps.
There is a lot of good evidence, backed by Harvard research, that faith can improve your health. Spirituality is taking a center step, even in the treatment of many diseases. And don't underestimate the power of positive thinking. Be cheerful and laugh as much as you can every day.
We all need to learn how to manage our emotions under pressure and stay calm. As Dr, Robert H. Schuller said, "Tough times never last, but tough people do."