Stress and Health

Research has linked stress to many health problems: the common cold, ulcers, asthma, headaches, menstrual discomfort, skin disorders, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, stroke, appendicitis, glaucoma, diabetes, back pain – to one degree or another, all have been connected to stress. Emotional hassles, of course, may not be the primary cause of physical ailments, but the strain and pressure of everyday living can definitely complicate physical health. That being the case, coping effectively with stress is definitely a health-enhancing behavior.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that the “solution” to stress is not to try and avoid it. This strategy may give you temporary relief as you retreat to your comfort zone, but over the long run, consistent avoidance of stressors causes low self-esteem, self-criticism, and – eventually – depression. So, what alternate strategies to avoidance are available to you, and without those negative side-effects?

Identify what you value. If you value yourself and the roles you play in life – roles like parent, spouse, employee, or friend – but at the same time let yourself become less effective in these roles, how can you expect to feel better about yourself? Act honorably – with sincere commitment and dedication – toward those things you value in life.

Coordinate your actions with your values. Do you put off investigating diets (an action) even though you say, “I care about my health” (your value)? Do you put off joining a gym (an action) even though you say, “I want to get in shape” (your value)? Do you make excuses for continuing a health-compromising habit like smoking (an action), even though you say, “I know it’s bad for me” (your value)? Coordinating your values to health-enhancing actions will help you initiate and maintain those actions.

Modify your interpretation of stressful events. Some students facing final exams might see exams as threats that will reveal incompetence and lack of intelligence. Other students might see exams as challenges that require preparation, and present opportunities to demonstrate learning and academic skills. This latter interpretation will foster a sense of control and empowerment. The stress will not be eliminated, but feelings of helplessness when confronted with that stress will be significantly reduced.

Write about things troubling you. Writing down your inner-most thoughts about stressful events has been shown to bolster the immune system. This “self-dialogue” encourages restructuring your perceptions of stressful incidents into manageable coping tasks, thus lowering stress. Talking with trustworthy others can have the same positive effect.

Strive for Realistic Optimism. A powerful antidote to the harmful effects of stress is having an optimistic attitude – as long as the positive outlook is realistic.  Research has shown that two months after beginning law school, optimistic students – “I can get through this OK if I manage my time, make school my top priority, and work with other students.” – showed better immune system functioning than pessimistic students – “I’m in over my head and just don’t have the ability to handle this work load. I’m screwed!” Again, notice the importance of interpretation: The optimist sees stress as a challenge that can be successfully overcome with effort; in other words, stress is a problem that needs to be solved. The pessimist sees stress as an unconquerable foe that generates anxiety and fear; the pessimist becomes obsessed with uncontrollable emotions, which leads to helplessness and depression.  

If optimism improves immune-system functioning, can we say that it also increases survival rates when a terminal illness like cancer is involved? Unfortunately, no. An optimistic attitude can improve the quality of a cancer victim’s life, but there is no definitive evidence that optimism affects disease progression or survival rates. This statement, however, should in no way downplay the importance of attitude on your adjustment to disease – or to life in general.

For instance, there are many positive effects of optimistic thinking for cancer victims: Compared to pessimists, optimists are better able to express their feelings to others, and more likely to be liked by others; they are more resistant to depression; they are more likely to form positive attitudes about their disease, such as seeing how their illness brought their families closer together; they are better able to restructure their attitudes about their illness, reduce their stress levels, and have a higher quality of life during the illness. Therefore, although coping strategies like optimism may not result in a higher survival rate, sufferers and their families and friends should act like it does!

These are just some ways to cope with stress without resorting to avoidance. The key is to find strategies that help you generate “passion” about life, because passion fosters seeing the value of active participation in life. Being passionate encourages you to “connect” with life, not avoid it, and to devote yourself to focusing on effort, not emotions.

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