Do you know the one winning strategy to coping with this 20th-century killer?
HYPERTENSION — excessive stress — has been called the silent killer. Why? Because it usually doesn't produce any apparent physical pain or other warnings before doing its ultimate damage. But a killer it is, nevertheless. Stress is a major factor in high blood pressure, in strokes, heart attacks and coronary-artery diseases. No other single force is more responsible for the worldwide epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse. Stress is often a central catalyst in health problems, in family problems, sometimes even leading to mate and child abuse. How many of us have suppressed inner anger when we think the boss did something unfair? Who hasn't worried over how to make ends meet in today's financially uncertain times? Hasn't almost everyone suffered the loneliness of losing loved ones? The frustrations of pursuing what society calls success? It all adds up to a condition that has sometimes been described as the disease of change. What we need are effective guidelines for dealing with stress, because stress is not going to simply go away. The good news is that there is a winning strategy against stress. Stress is not necessarily a negative force. Stress is not, after all, just what happens to us, but how we react to what happens to us. And how we react is controlled by our minds and emotions.
The Role of Stress
To be alive is to be under a certain amount of stress. As one author put it, no one constructs a building with the intention of just letting it sit empty. The building is meant to be utilized for some purpose — to withstand the reasonable stresses of people, furniture, weight and use. So it is with humans. The right level of stress is perfectly acceptable and productive. One of the world's foremost authorities on stress, endocrinologist Hans Selye, says: "Most people who want to accomplish something, who are ambitious, live on stress. They need it." The right amount of stress can push us to perform at our very best. Stress also serves to protect us in hazardous situations. If we are driving along in fast traffic and another car swerves into our lane in front of us, a lot of things immediately happen in our bodies — in the brain, heart, muscular system. The body marshals inner forces and rises to meet the crisis, producing the positive condition of trying to avoid a collision. But if the crises and pressures around us become so frequent and so intense that we are constantly calling upon inner resources to respond so dramatically, the stress becomes debilitating. The body simply cannot meet such demands. Says health educator Leo R. Van Dolson: "When individuals are repeatedly forced to... accept continual change, especially changes involving conflict and uncertainty, an adaptive reaction occurs' that draws upon the hormones, causing chemical reactions throughout the body that damage its reserves of energy." Having too much stress, which Dr. Selye refers to as hyperstress. can be destructive to both our physical and emotional well-being. And that is exactly what has happened in many cases in this hectic world. Excessive stress has become a harmful force in people's lives.
Researchers have isolated stress as a common factor in many cases of disease. Different ailments may attack more readily if a person has faced emergencies or disappointments first. Stress-related illnesses cost American industry fully 2 percent of the gross national product. In Britain, 2 percent of gross domestic product is also lost annually. Up to 10 times more workdays are lost to industry through stress than strikes, with coronary heart disease accounting for half the cost of stress-related illnesses. According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, more than 18 percent of all Americans have definite hypertension. (The term definite hypertension refers to a blood pressure higher than 160/95.) Figures are comparable for other highly developed, fast-paced industrial societies. Clearly defined physical problems are to blame in 5 to 10 percent of the hypertension cases. Most hypertension, however, is related to life-style — how people think, act and care for themselves.
Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Many people are seeking to dull the pain of the 20th-century "disease" of stress by using alcohol and drugs. But the supposed cure has itself created an epidemic. Organizational development consultant Karl Albrecht aptly summarizes today's state of mind in these words: "The use of mood-altering chemicals in America, and to some extent in other developed countries, has run completely wild. "Cultures we are pleased to label 'primitive' all without exception reserve the use of tobacco, drugs and intoxicants for special occasions such as celebration and rituals. Only in the so-called advanced cultures do we use these chemically induced altered states of awareness as routine means for escaping reality." Many turn to alcohol or drugs to anesthetize the stress produced by emotionally upsetting events or situations such as marital quarrels, poverty, fear, loneliness and job tensions. These individuals fail to realize, however, that using alcohol or drugs to cope with stress only creates further stress, contributing to a vicious and harmful cycle in a person's life. Using alcohol or drugs is not an effective measure for coping with pressures. It's like trying to kill a fly by exploding a stick of dynamite — the cure may be even worse than the original problem. For instance, one important key to coping with stress is relaxation. More and more psychologists and physicians are coming to view occasional recreation not just as a help but as an essential part of a balanced life-style. Relaxing by a change of activity restores us. People with drug or alcohol problems do attempt to relax, but only by turning to a bottle filled with either alcohol or pills. The drug abuser, rather than learning how to properly relax, relies on drugs to relax him. He is confronting his problems in the wrong way. Here is why. Drug reliance, which can develop into addiction and cause a host of other related problems, spawns more stress. The drug user becomes trapped in the cycle. He uses drugs to cope with stress, and this use only creates more stress. Relaxation should, rather, involve exercise, a change of pace, momentarily getting one's mind off whatever is causing the stress (and that by mental choice, not with self-prescribed alcohol or drugs). Alcohol is safely and temperately used only by one who is already mentally relaxed. Alcohol should never be used to regularly induce relaxation.
Physical Points to Consider
Since stress involves a person's mental or emotional reaction to external events, any effective program must involve, to one degree or another, a change of mind — a reorienting of life priorities. Besides relaxation, there are other effective measures for reducing the debilitating effects stress can have: • Be realistic. Let's face it: We know we are going to have disappointments in life. None of us can succeed every time at everything we try. The stressful person often fails to accept this simple fact. He may mentally magnify his problems out of proportion. He becomes so wrapped up in his difficulties, real or imagined, that he cannot see anything else. Certainly, a person's problems may be real and serious — a broken marriage, unemployment and lack of money, problems with a child, illness. But dwelling on them to the point of becoming paralyzed by them — unable to take action — does not solve them. The solutions must come through emotional maturity, seeking wise counsel and getting control of one's life. Complaining about constant hard work, for example, only reinforces the stress. Focusing on the reward obtained from the work, on the other hand, will make the work a source of satisfaction rather than tension. Developing this kind of positive attitude toward stress-producing pressures will ease inner tensions. Don't be crushed when you fail, because you certainly will fail from time to time. If you indulge in self-pity, you'll not put yourself in any pressure situation again and you'll never accomplish anything! A person who increases his or her efforts to master a situation he or she can never control is bound to be frustrated. For instance, consider the parent whose well-intentioned advice to grown children falls on deaf ears. If the children, now adults themselves, are unwilling to listen and heed, the parent will only frustrate himself or herself by continuing to be assertive and trying to enforce his or her will in situations. It is a case of effort without accomplishment, and it produces stress. The best course in this and, other examples would be to act where possible, but also to realize and accept limitations when and where they exist. People prone to battle on stubbornly in no-win situations sometimes know they have every reason to change, yet, through habit, they resist alteration. If we become more goal oriented and look to the ultimate rewards for our efforts, pressures we daily undergo will not seem as difficult to bear. Take control of your life. Realize there are things you can do to make a difference. This knowledge — this freedom — can be a powerful source of comfort. • Manage your time. Time management is important. It involves making optimum use of the time we have available to do the things that need to be done. Giving priority to tasks to get the most important — and, potentially, most worrisome — things done first, helps. Managing time wisely to get things done is certainly better than retreating to a drug-induced state of euphoria or forgetfulness. When a drug abuser comes down from his high, the same problems still exist. The same tasks remain undone, and may by then be even more urgent. The person may choose, then, to flee once again to his private, "safe," drugged world. The resulting sense of accomplishment from fulfilling responsibilities sensibly can produce its own circle of events — this one positive — encouraging a person to accomplish more. • Improve general health. A healthy, physically fit person can cope with a vast amount of pressure. He is adaptable, positive and generally hopeful. Poor health magnifies the small irritations of life and prolongs a cycle of illness. Consider, in the matter of improving general health, diet, exercise, rest, getting plenty of fresh air and sunshine whenever possible and developing self-control. • Incorporate alternatives to stress. Life is filled with many sources of anxiety and unnecessary stimulation. We can simply choose to avoid some of these areas that induce stress unnecessarily, such as in the entertainment we pursue. When we stimulate our minds with an incessant barrage of loud, dissonant noise, and with themes that center on violence, crime and interpersonal tragedy, we voluntarily induce stress. It may also be well worth examining our values. Is it worth pursuing some career goal if that pursuit could cost your marriage? While working overtime may be essential for some, in the long run spending time with your children has priority. What amount of money can buy back time that could have been shared with loved ones?
The Most Important Dimension
These physical techniques help ameliorate physical problems. But to completely eliminate hyperstress involves changing the basic way human nature functions. The Bible offers the best strategy in relation to stress, emotional maturity and mental health. Here's the only approach that can help us win over excessive stress once and for all! "Anxiety in the heart of man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad" (Prov. 12:25, Revised Authorized Version throughout, except where noted). What makes a person "glad" — positive, optimistic, have a constructive frame of mind? A constant, positive attitude and approach to life! Helping and encouraging others by your thoughtful words and receiving support from others are important. "A merry heart does good, like medicine, but a broken spirit dries the bones" (Prov. 17:22). The medicine we need is not a chemical. It is this outgoing, optimistic approach to life and resultant interest in others' needs. "A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion [Authorized Version: envy] makes the bones rot" (Prov. 14:30, Revised Standard Version). Do drugs really produce this "tranquil" state of mind — this general, continual attitude of contentment that gives "life to the flesh" that promotes a successful, happy life? Hardly. As the above Proverbs showed, the Bible is not suggesting chemical solutions to human problems and stress. The answer is in one's basic approach to life. The Bible reveals that pursuing one's own desires and creature comforts will not make one happy. Jesus Christ summed it up: "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). There it is! Preoccupation with self only contributes to the hyperstress that has caused or compounded many of this world's problems. Resolving hyperstress and its concomitant evils, then, is a matter of changing one's whole life-style from its general pattern of taking and selfishness to a life-style of giving, of service, of concern for others equal to or greater than concern for self. Dr. Selye himself, as an endocrinologist, has frequently expressed that hate causes stress and love eliminates it. He asks, "If everyone loved his neighbor as himself, how could there be any war, crime, aggression or even tension among people?" Dr. Selye has noted one quality that he feels is more needed than any other if one is to cope with life's stresses: gratitude. Think, in every circumstance, how you can be thankful. Learn to laugh. Above all, avoid hatred and the desire for revenge. Think well of others and try to bring happiness to them. Psychologist Erich Fromm notes: "Not he who has much is rich, but he who gives much. The hoarder who is anxiously worried about losing something is, psychologically speaking, the poor; impoverished man, regardless of how much he has." In comparing the giving, loving person to the selfish person, Dr. Fromm continues: "The selfish person is interested only in himself, wants everything for himself, feels no pleasure in giving, but only in taking. The world outside is looked at only from the standpoint of what he can get out of it." But what the selfish person does not realize is that his own selfishness is the root Of his troubles. His selfishness "leaves him empty and frustrated. He is necessarily unhappy and anxiously concerned to snatch from life the satisfactions which he blocks himself from attaining." In short, if we give instead of take, our own problems and tensions are on the way to being eliminated. Strange? It shouldn't be. As we live this way of giving, debilitating stress will diminish — even disappear — from our lives. Then we can, as the apostle Paul put it: "Be anxious for nothing... and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:6-7).