Got Stress? Read This

Stress brings man into Penny Donnenfeld's New York City practice. "Stress is real and should be taken seriously," says the clinical psychologist who is also a supervisor at Columbia University's Teacher's College. "It can affect your functioning and your physical health in profound ways but is often dismissed as 'only' stress. That's like saying it's only cancer."

Given the fast-paced world we live in today, it's no wonder that the World Health Organization warns that by the year 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of death and disability in the world-in part due to more stressful lifestyles.

The History of Stress

Medically speaking, stress is the body's age-old response to change. Since cave men were required to literally run for their lives, our bodies have learned to react by secreting a hormone (cortisol) that speeds up our hearts and helps us get! The trouble is today's stresses are quite different from those in Neanderthal times but we still responding with a fight or flight mentality.

"Evolutionary wise, our bodies haven't adapted," says Sheralee Tershner, Ph.D., director of the neuroscience program at West New England College in Springfield, MA. "We are still releasing enough cortisol to escape the saber tooth tiger but since he's not chasing us, that energy isn't being utilized and creates other problems."

According to Tershner, love handles are one negative outcome. "People often crave carbs in times of stress. When they aren't used, they get stored around the midline and the pudginess is referred to as stress fat," Tershner explains.

Cortisol buildup also damages memory cells. "That's why people do absent-minded things when they are stressed like locking their keys in the car or forgetting their wallet." High blood pressure, frequent headaches, heart burn and other chronic digestive problems can also be signs of stress.

What's Stressing Us Out?

Donnenfeld, Ph.D. explains that mid-life stressors typically revolve around work and relationships. "As people get older they think about the quality of their personal relationships, what they've accomplished in life and what they have left to look forward to," she says. "There's a sense that the thrill is gone which is ridiculous considering most people today live to be in their 80s. At mid-life there's still a lot that can happen."

When stresses flare, Donnenfeld advises people to take a careful look at what's occurring. "Be a detective," the expert says. "Observe what is happening to you so you can determine your stress triggers. Managing stress well is critical for health and well being and should be taught in childhood."

Stress Relievers: What to Do

According to Donnenfeld, it's possible to reverse a stress reaction in as little as three minutes. Here, some ways to calm yourself:

Just breathe. Physical symptoms (increased heart rate, for example) can be caused by stress. Diaphragmatic breathing can calm the mind and body. Yoga classes can be useful for teaching breathing and meditation.

Gain perspective. Ask yourself if you will really care about the issue that is worrying you a year from now. Unless it has to do with health and family, chances are the stress in your day-to-day life is not life-threatening."

Label your feelings accurately. Is the situation truly catastrophic? It may well be disappointing, enraging and frightening but between those words there are lots of options and choices. Taking an honest look at what's happening can be a big step toward regaining control of your emotions.

Get moving. Exercise not only defuses a stressful situation, it better prepares you to cope with future stress and helps to fight depression. When University of California at San Diego researchers kept track of more than 900 older adults whose average age was 70, they found that those who exercised regularly had the best moods a decade later. In contrast, men and women who never exercised, or quit during the study, were more likely to develop a depressive mood.

Partake in a sport, craft or hobby on a regular basis. "Anything people do that prevents them from ruminating about their own life while providing a sense of achievement will help," Donnenfeld says. Nurturing a pet can also be a good outlet. 

Coach Little League. If you aren't getting the recognition you need from work, look elsewhere for it. "A paycheck is just one way to be recognized. Your son's baseball team may provide the recognition you seek," Donnenfeld suggests.

Therapy can be effective. "A good therapist will help you evaluate your lifestyle and show teach you how to manage your stress," Donnenfeld says adding that medication may have a place but should never be used to the exclusion of other lifestyle changes.




The Franklin Institute

Interview with Penny Donnenfeld, Ph.D

Interview with Sheralee Tershner, P.D.