DLW is an occasional blog about how people spend the time of their lives (every moment) to enable health, balance, meaning and fulfillment. As a blogspot about doing, it draws from personal stories and from studies of everyday living. It's main idea is that to be well, people must be involved fully in what they do. The activities that occupy our days help to connect us to the world, define who we are, and keep us healthy.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Stress is not good for you...not that you thought it was!!

If there is anything that can be said about life in the United States these days (or the world, for that matter), it's that there are lots of things going on that can cause worry or concern. It is a scientific fact that the most unhappy people in the population are those who are unemployed, so it should be seen as a societal concern that the unemployment rate is rising to levels not seen for decades. The new administration understands that the cost for not doing something will be far greater than the cost of an economic stimulus package, no matter how large. Why? Well, it's not just because people need to earn a living and buy things to get the economy back on track. It's also because economic downturns can affect public health by making the population more susceptible to illness.

But this blog post is not about politics or economic stimulus proposals. It's about stress and what it does to our bodies over time. We all generally perceive that being stressed out is not a good thing. But perhaps many of us feel that as long as we can get beyond the stressful periods and have some time for R&R (rest and recuperation), so to speak, we can shake off the consequences of stress and there will be no harm done.

The truth is, however, that over time, the effects of stress add up. It takes a toll on the body. And scientists now have a way of measuring that "toll" through objective means. These tests, which include blood pressure, cholesterol, and several other measures of "physiological" fitness, are collectively called "allostatic load". When the body responds to stressful circumstances, that process is called allostasis. Medical and psychological understanding of how stress shortens our lives and makes us susceptible to acute illnesses and longer term chronic diseases has now advanced rapidly. Scientists now have a better understanding of how the process works, and the area of "psychoneuroimmunology" or PNI, is where this knowledge is being gained.

The theory of how our worries activate hormones to tax our immune systems is too involved for this blog, but I recommend that interested readers take a look at a good book written in an interesting, understandable way called: Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky, PhD. The title of the book is a shorthand way of communicating the relationship between stress and health. Part of the reason we overtax our immune systems is because we worry about things that have happened to us or might happen to us. That worry signals our body to activate stress hormones that are good when they are needed, but harmful if they are around when they aren't needed. Dr. Sapolsky uses the example of the fire station that runs out of fuel and fresh men when it is constantly responding to false alarms, and compares that fire station to our immune systems, which are supposed to stamp out germs and other invaders to keep our bodies healthy. Immune systems get worn down by high and persistent levels of stress.

So...as my son once told me: "chillax". That was good advice. People who are able to chill and relax, are more resilient to the adverse consequences of stress. They experience less wear and tear on their bodies, and chances are, they will be more likely to live longer and healthier lives...and thus be able to "do life well." It turns out that resilience, or the ability to endure stress with fewer adverse consequences, is related to happiness. But that is a topic for a future blog post. Stay tuned!

(For readers interested in a readable but more complete and scientific account of allostasis and allostatic load on the web, go here.)

About Me

I am a writer, lifelong student, former academic and new blogger. My passion continues to be everyday living. I am interested in what people do, how, when and why they do it, and what it means for their their understanding of the world and hence, their well being.