Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Stress and Happiness I

Stress and Happiness I:

For the Holiday Season, New Year and the Rest of Your Life

Many Chatham County residents have noticed my articles about topics such as relaxation and have requested more information about stress management and life improvement. My present to Chatham County Line readers will be a series of articles on this topic.

Take note: stress can accelerate your physiological aging by as many as three decades! This information comes via Michael Roizen, M.D., who completed an exhaustive review of the medical and scientific literature to provide information for you to calculate your "real age."

We are now experiencing an epidemic of personal distress and diseases causing an actual decline in the quality of life in this country. In an earlier article "Relaxation, Meditation, Hemi-sync" in the Advice Line section of my website I described the difference between the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS, our alerting and stress response system) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS, which allows for relaxation good digestion and sleep.) We absolutely need the SNS which is highly efficient in alerting the body without delay to dangers in the environment and mobilizing body resources for fight or flight. If you're ambling down the road and a truck suddenly skids toward you, you'll bless your SNS for your immediate response to startle and run out of danger. Problem solved, then your body will return to its normal steady-state. But wait! Modern life continues to stimulate the SNS until the alerting stress response becomes chronic and takes over your body. Work deadlines, family problems, money worries, incessant bad news blaring over the TV, all stimulate the SNS to alert, continually scan for problems and respond quickly to omnipresent challenges. Chronic SNS overactivation (the stress monster) has become the "normal" way of life for too many of us.

What are the consequences of this chronic stress response? You may no longer notice the overt physical signs such as elevated heart beat and blood pressure, shallow chest breathing, tense muscles or digestive upset. You rarely think about the increased inflammation and strain on your internal organs and decreased efficiency of your immune system which is needed to protect you from infection and disease. Because the stress response is produced by our lower brain (limbic system), the stress monster blocks clear thinking and good decision-making which are the functions of the higher brain (prefrontal cortex). Because we're chronically overstimulated and tense, with our attention narrowed, we become overwhelmed by negative emotions and are less able to respond to the positive aspects of life. In this state the brain does not distinguish between ever present stressful thoughts and actual danger, and the results are chronic difficulties such as anxiety, irritability, attention problems, sleep disorders, back pain, headaches, G.I. distress, infections, heart disease and cancer, dementia and Alzheimer's.

Why hasn't our great modern society cured these problems and conquered the stress monster? We receive the message that quick relief is available over the counter in our drugstores or dispensed as prescribed medications. Alas, the relief is either temporary or illusory. Growing impatient, we seek relief in overeating, we overspend in the pursuit of pleasure, we escape with electronic gadgets and we overuse alcohol or indulge in other addictions.

Before you are worn down and worn out, make a promise to yourself to improve your life now. I'll start with a simple but dramatic intervention: A-breathing (abdominal breathing.) Research has established definitively that slow, deeper breathing from the abdomen will switch your body from SNS to PNS control, while shallow chest breathing will continue the domination of the SNS stress response. To practice A-breathing, imagine that your abdomen is a soft balloon filling with air. Begin inhaling and exhaling slowly through your abdomen, focusing on the ebb and fall of your breath, keeping your shoulders still and relaxed. Practice at home with your hands on your abdomen, feeling your belly rise and fall slowly, noticing how your tension will gradually slip away. Other stress management strategies may fail if your breathing continues in a shallow and rapid manner.

I'll leave you with one another body skill, muscle relaxation. This skill is elusive to many people because of difficulty relaxing muscles with voluntary effort. The key then is tensing muscles in order to relax. We are wired physically such that our muscles relax to their utmost immediately after being tensed and constricted. You can scan your entire body to find where you keep your tension, then practice tensing those muscles really tightly as a prelude to complete relaxation. Other people systematically tense muscles in various parts of the body before relaxing each muscle. Be sure to combine this with A-breathing and use affirmations such as "I am relaxed and at peace."

The bad news is that you will have to practice the strategies described in these articles. At first daily practice is a must. The good news is that you don't have to spend a lot of your precious time practicing. A few minutes a day is a good start. After you master the skills you can practice them when stressed such as sitting in a traffic jam. You can grip the steering wheel and then relax your fingers, slowing your breathing and reciting your affirmation about being relaxed and at peace. You'll feel better and have no interest in road rage.

Keep tuned for future articles describing additional approaches to stress management.