If an epidemic is defined as a disease that affects whole populations without having a medical cure, then the epidemic of modern life is stress.
Stress itself is not a disease, but it instead leads to a breakdown in the body’s internal balance, or homeostasis, and from that point onward, if the stress isn’t relieved, damage occurs from within. Ironically, most modern people in a developed country do not experience acute stress, the kind that triggers a full-blown fight-or-flight response. There is no battlefront, civil war, rampant violent crime, or struggle over food and water to contend with.
Our epidemic is silent and hidden, in the form of low-level chronic stress. The natural purpose of the body’s stress response is to trigger heightened alertness and energy for a short period, a matter of minutes or at most an hour, when fighting or fleeing is a matter of survival. When stress becomes chronic, a “normal” way of life that people believe they have adapted to, stress hormones become a drip-drip in the background of the physiology, and over time, three stages of damage begin to appear:
- Psychological and neural damage. This begins with minor things like feeling mentally tired and under pressure from deadlines at work. When people say they are stressed out, they generally mean that they’ve run out of energy, which can mask mental states like being depressed, anxious, or even panicky.
- Behavioral damage. Negative changes in behavior are likely to manifest in two major areas: work and relationships. Stressful jobs can make you respond with all kinds of behaviors, from office gossip to going out for a drink after work. As stress mounts, the drinking can get heavier, the need for distraction more severe. Inevitably, you may take your feelings home after work, where friction easily follows.
- Physical damage. When the body can’t completely adapt to stress, bad effects follow without being predictable. Most people will suffer from physical fatigue. Stomachaches, bad digestion, and headaches are likely—so is reduced immune response, leading to more colds and worsened allergies. After that, the problems will tend to be associated with inflammation, whose effects can travel anywhere. One person may experience skin eruptions, another irritable bowel syndrome, yet another a heart attack or stroke. By this stage, the damage caused by stress has led to serious system breakdown
For everyone, there needs to be conscious coping mechanisms in the face of everyday stress. Most people will react with the following responses, all of which are are self-defeating:
- Worry is self-induced anxiety. It solves nothing and blocks the possibility of dealing with things more positively.
- Complaining increases tension and anger. As a display of hostility, it encourages other people to act hostile in return.
- Pessimism induces the illusion that a situation is hopeless and fosters the belief that expecting a bad outcome is always realistic, when in fact it isn’t.
A better response would be to :
- Detach yourself from the stressor.
- Become centered.
- Remain active.
- Seek positive outlets.
- Rely on emotional support.
- Escape if you must.
All of these things are positive adaptations, as opposed to the negativity of worry, complaining, and pessimism. They bring awareness into a situation where falling back on passive acceptance isn’t the right answer. Beneath the attitude of “I have to put up with it” lies stress.
In most everyday situations, you have the option of turning the situation around by interpreting it not as bad luck but as a non-stress, to which you respond by doing things you actually want to do, like meditating, connecting with a friend, or shopping. When you become adept at this turnaround, chronic stress is nipped in the bud. You cut short a process that otherwise would have affected your body and mind negatively