And the stress is killing us.
I’ve been avoiding this story, and I know why.
It’s supposed to be about how the world should slow down, relax. And it’s supposed to be about how I should slow down, relax.
Honestly, I’m not good with slow. I’m so well-trained to be the hamster running feverishly on the wheel to nowhere that slow makes me downright uncomfortable. So, as with most things that make me uncomfortable, I’ve been procrastinating.
Each time I sit down to write, another article is suddenly more urgent, more relevant.
But on my quest for peace in a frantic world, I’m not making much headway, and I’m worried about the effect on my physical and mental health. So today THIS story is the most urgent, and the most relevant.
I’m going to start here, by simply acknowledging one simple point:
Lately, I feel like everything is just moving too damned quickly.
From the highway traffic of my daily commute to the colleagues speed-walking my office hallways; sprinting through the morning routine and dashing through the evening tasks, rushing, rushing, rushing, hurdling toward that blessed hour when I get to sit and do absolutely nothing more than curl up on the couch with my husband and cats and watch a re-run of West Wing. (And please, don’t even get me started on the ever-quickening march of time.)
Somewhere, in the midst of all that, there are things I actually enjoy, and I’m barely noticing them, experiencing them.
Over the course of a few self-contained stories, I’m going to explore the facets of racing through a normal day. These segments of our lives that often feel like nothing more than a blur.
Someone Please — Give Me a Speeding Ticket Already!
I’m fast. I’ve been fast for as long as I can remember. I’m all about efficiency and multi-tasking and being superwoman as much as super-humanly possible (until I can’t go go go anymore and I simply crash). Sometimes it makes me queasy because I’ve worked myself into a frenzy of stomach bile and shallow breathing without even realizing it.
I can feel my face burning and my ears tingling because every nerve in my body is on high alert, just from going through the tasks of a normal workday. I know I’ve turned beet-red, and I can feel the tears prickling hot behind my eyelids and I’m embarrassed at what people must see when they look at me.
I’d like to slap myself across the face and say
“Snap out of it, woman!”
Over the years, I’ve started to wonder if I’ve put myself on a crash course, hurdling toward a heart attack. I quit smoking almost seven years ago, exercise regularly, eat pretty well because thank goodness I actually love to cook. But I am just so darned stressed, all the time. Does my stress cancel out any healthy habits I may have?
I am not alone.
A Gallup poll conducted in 2017 indicated that 79% of Americans feel stress sometimes or frequently during their day.
The December 2017 American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Survey indicates three out of four Americans “reported experiencing at least one stress symptom in the past month. 45% report lying awake at night, 36% report feeling nervous or anxious, 35% report irritability or anger, and 34% report fatigue due to stress.”
On one hand, I’m saddened that so many of us feel that way. On the other hand, these symptoms are so entwined with my version of reality that I can’t believe the numbers are actually so low.
Or perhaps the statistics only represent those of us who are willing to admit stress is a problem?
There are serious physical and mental ramifications to prolonged stress, and I suspect most of us don’t take them, well, seriously enough.
Because stress has become the new normal. We don’t know any other reality, and we don’t feel like we have a choice.
What Happens to a Stressed-Out Body
The Mayo Clinic says people “undoubtedly face multiple demands each day, such as shouldering a huge workload, making ends meet and taking care of your family. Your body treats these so-called minor hassles as threats. As a result, you may feel as if you’re constantly under assault.”
Yep, that pretty much sums it up.
When we encounter a perceived threat, processes in our nervous systems are triggered, beginning with the hypothalamus and traveling through various nerve and hormonal signals. Adrenaline and cortisol and other hormones are released.
Typically, once the threat has passed, the body’s systems would go back to normal. But when we rarely if ever feel release from the constant stress in our lives, we never slip out of fight or flight mode. Long term, this can disrupt our bodies immensely.
WebMD tells us that ongoing, chronic stress can result in:
“Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and personality disorders; Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks and stroke; Obesity and other eating disorders; Menstrual problems; Sexual dysfunction, such as impotence and premature ejaculation in men and loss of sexual desire in both men and women; Skin and hair problems, such as acne, psoriasis and eczema and permanent hair loss; Gastrointestinal problems, such as GERD, gastritis, ulcerative colitis and irritable colon.”
Sounds fun, right?
Are you scared yet? We should be.
Over time, those increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) can be extremely detrimental to our health. A study published in the November 2014 issue of Experimental Gerontology indicated that older men with consistently high hassles (typically those who consider their lives to be extremely stressful) had more than a three times greater mortality risk than men in the same demographic who didn’t consider their lives to be stressful.
The World Around Us
In addition to the ongoing stress of our daily lives, we’re worrying more about the world around us. A LOT more.
According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress Report of 2017, 59% of Americans, across all generations, believe this is the lowest point in the history of the United States, based on their recollection. And 63% of Americans, again regardless of age, say they are significantly stressed about the future of the country.
Let that sink in for a moment. This includes people, per the APA report, “who have lived through World War II, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the September 11 terrorist attacks, and high-profile mass shootings.”
In the decade or so that the survey has been conducted, this was the first time a new stressor surpassed money and work on the list of things that caused respondents the most concern (though money and work still round out the top three).
This story will not provide the answers
I am not an expert in stress management. On the contrary. I am simply a fellow traveler, recognizing a problem in myself and in society. I’m hoping to create awareness, for myself and others. It is not ok for us to continue down this deadly path.
I will continue examining my own habits, actions and reactions, and seeking ways to diminish my stress levels.
I deserve to enjoy my life. So do you.
I leave you with this quote from William James, which resonates with me today:
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
Today, I hope to choose a calmer state of mind. Well, at least for the next couple of hours. Or minutes. Or maybe just this moment. We have to start somewhere, right?
If you enjoyed this, please feel free to check out the second self-contained story in my series about slowing down.