Taking the stress out of stress management
Although the overall stress level for Americans continues to drop, this level still remains high and exceeds what most citizens consider to be healthy. Add in the factors of a military life, such as deployment, re-deployment and combat, and one can only conclude that our men and women Soldiers are most likely burdened with additional stressors unknown to the typical civilian.
The U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command manages an active portfolio of Department of Defense- and U.S. Army-funded research that aims to develop and scientifically test different techniques to enhance an individual's ability to deal with stress effectively. Approaches that are currently under investigation include mindfulness-based methods, yoga, and mind-body approaches, along with other techniques such as stress inoculation, which may be beneficial across various settings.
"Stress is one of the leading contributors to preventable disease," said Dr. Deborah Morrone of the Frederick (Md.) Chiropractic Wellness Center. "It doubles the rate of heart and cardiovascular problems, substance abuse, and infectious diseases, and it may increase the average rate of some cancers by up to five times."
Morrone visited the Soldiers and civilians at Fort Detrick, Md., to present a seminar on proper stress management techniques. Not only did she provide facts regarding the impact of stress, but Morrone offered a number of suggestions to alleviate its negative effects.
"When you experience stress, your body responds by increasing the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, so that your body goes into a state of 'fight or flight,'" said Morrone. "Too many people are stuck in this mode, and their stress response stays in high gear, which leads to chronic health problems."
She also said this fight or flight condition typically increases blood pressure, decreases digestion, and decreases the immune function for most people.
"Most people don't consider that these various symptoms might be all parts of the same problem," said Morrone. "The body functions as a whole integrated unit. By focusing on treating just the symptoms, the big picture often gets overlooked."
While these statistics may be alarming to many, Morrone says that a little self-care can go a long way. And the mantra she advocates is simple: Eat well, move well, think well.
As the saying goes, we are what we eat, and this is critical when trying to fend off the negative effects of stress on one's body. A consistent intake of proper nutrients is important in helping the body to refuel in order to function and heal. A varied diet of whole, natural, unprocessed foods (100% whole grains, fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, nuts and legumes, and dairy products) is best. However, good quality, food-based nutritional supplements are sometimes necessary and important to fill in the gaps of a less-than-perfect diet, or if you have specific health challenges. Synthetic vitamins like those usually found in your average over-the-counter supplements may not work as well, since your body will not absorb or use them as well as the combination of nutrients found in whole foods.
Morrone said chemical-laden processed "food-like" substances only add to the strain on the body by creating inflammation. Eating whole and minimally processed foods provides greater benefit to the digestive system and allows for greater absorption of nutrients. One should also be aware of undetected food sensitivities and allergies, as these keep the immune system and stress hormones running on "high," leading to chronic fatigue, digestive problems, and depression, among other things. As some of these symptoms may also be triggered by certain medications and drugs, typically listed among the side effects, one should be very careful when taking either prescription or non-prescription products.
"Physical activity works better than medication for depression," said Morrone. "It increases endorphins, which are your body's natural painkillers, improves lung capacity and heart function, and improves digestion by helping with movement of the digestive tract."
In her presentation, Morrone states 90% of the stimulation of and nutrition to the brain is generated by the spine. In light of this, one can see how important movement and proper posture are to common processes of the brain. As a chiropractor, Morrone specifically helps with these issues by identifying and correcting abnormal motion and strain in the spine, which in turns reduces abnormal stress and strain on the entire nervous system. As nerve and joint function improves, overall stress levels in the entire body begin to improve.
The doctor also says forward head posture, or slouching, results in as much as a 30% loss of vital capacity of the lungs, and this shortness of breath can lead to heart and vascular disease. It should be quite clear that proper, full breathing is critical in maintaining good physical health.
"One of the biggest problems I see often in people dealing with stress is that they just don't breathe or move normally," said Morrone. "Their shoulders are hunched up tight and they forget they have to breathe! You can clearly see the tension in their body posture."
Morrone says there are basically two types of problems: those you can do something about, and those you cannot do anything about. She suggests making a list of all of the stressors in one's life, without thinking too much about each. Her advice is to just sit down and start writing, and once the list is compiled, to take a look at what is on the paper.
"When you see the list of items, one by one, in black and white," said Morrone, "then you have to ask yourself, 'What is really important? Will this problem matter 10 minutes from now, 10 days from now, 10 months from now, or 10 years from now?' If not, let it go and move on to the next problem, and soon you'll see that most of the things troubling you aren't really major problems at all."
As the crux of Morrone's advice is to "chunk it down" to the next simplest step, she recognizes some problems need to be faced and resolved before one can move forward. Her best advice for this task is to establish firm guidelines to address these problems within a reasonable timeframe.
The main questions to ask are: When will you do it, what resources will you need, and where can you find these resources? For example, if your finances are a cause of stress, a good accountant or financial planner can help you to get organized, and to set goals and priorities. If you are having health issues, resources can and should include healthcare professionals who are willing and able to look beyond treating the obvious symptoms to help you effectively address the underlying problems.
If problems can be addressed one at a time, the success rate for resolution should be high while the anxiety generated by each task should be lessened. This remains the primary goal of stress management: taking away, one at a time, each factor that increases one's level of anxiety. For many, often this is easier said than done, but a focused, sincere effort is usually all that is needed to bridge the gap between saying and doing.
And when it comes to managing stress, "doing" is the most important part. As Morrone says, no one is actually forced to be a "stress mess." Stress is not what happens to you, it is how you choose to respond to what happens to you. Ultimately, you control the amount of stress in your life. This means that the stress and tension you feel each day is not everyone else's fault. It's your choice.
One should keep this simple advice in mind the next time the stress levels begin to rise. Instead of viewing the anxiety as an overwhelming rollercoaster ride rushing you along, think of it as a children's ride that you can get off at any time. Just like being at an amusement park, you can hop on whichever rides you like, at any time. The choice is up to you.