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Here comes another plague!
Throughout history, mankind has had periodic episodes of illness which have decimated our population. The Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe in the Middle Ages. Syphilis killed one in four Europeans when it was introduced to Europe in the 1500's. Every other Hawaiian was killed by measles in the 1700's. Meanwhile, the Native Americans were slain by smallpox and other imported diseases. Today, a new epidemic is taking its toll on the population: STRESS. According to recent studies, one in ten persons is falling victim to the negative effects of stress. This is leading to a number of problems in our society ranging from depression and anxiety to conditions such as heart disease as well as a number of other physical illnesses.
What is stress?
Everyone knows what stress is and what it feels like. Stress results when something causes your body to behave as if it were under attack. Sources of stress can be physical, like injury or illness. They can also be mental, like problems in your marriage, job, health, or finances. When stress occurs, the body gears up to take action. This preparation is called the "fight-or-flight response." When the body is in this mode, levels of many different hormones begin to rise. The net effect is to make a lot of stored energy (such as glucose and fat) available to cells. These cells are then primed to help the body get away from the perceived threat.
Why chronic stress is a bad thing?
Unfortunately, many sources of stress are not short-term threats. For example, it can take many months to recover from a surgery or to finalize a divorce. Stress hormones are designed to deal with short-term dangers and are very effective in doing so. When they are required to stay turned on for a prolonged period of time, however, they can cause many problems in the body. For example, they can cause long-term high blood sugar levels (which can lead to diabetes) and can cause high blood pressure (which can lead to heart disease). In fact, many chronic disease states are now being attributed (in whole or in part) to chronic stress.
What about mental stress?
Many long-term sources of stress are mental. Your mind sometimes reacts to a non-threatening situation as if it were a real threat. Like physical stress, mental stress can be short-term (from taking a test or getting stuck in a traffic jam), or it can be long-term (from working for a demanding boss or taking care of an aging parent). When the stress we experience is mental in nature, the body still responds as if it was under attack and begins pumping out stress hormones but to no avail. Neither fighting nor fleeing is any help when the "enemy" is in your own mind.
What can be done?
Fortunately for us, we do have some control over our reaction to mental stress. It is possible to learn to relax and subsequently reverse the body's hormonal response to stress. In addition, one may also be able to change one's life situation(s) to relieve sources of stress. Something else that affects people's responses to stress is their coping style. A person's coping style is how that person deals with stress. For example, some people have a problem-solving attitude. When faced with a problem they say to themselves, "What can I do about this problem?" They try to change their situation in order to get rid of the stress. Other people talk themselves into accepting the problem as being okay. They say to themselves, "This problem really isn't so bad after all." Coping styles such as these can be quite effective in relieving stress. What's more, these coping styles can be learned by just about everyone.
Learning to relax.
Relaxation is another way to help reduce stress. There are a number of relaxation techniques that have been shown to effectively reduce or eliminate unwanted stress. Here are some examples:
- Breathing exercises. Sit or lie down and uncross your legs and arms. Take in a deep breath. Then push out as much air as you can. Breathe in and out again, this time relaxing your muscles on purpose while breathing out. Keep breathing and relaxing for 5 to 20 minutes at a time. Do the breathing exercises at least once a day.
- Progressive relaxation therapy. In this technique, which you can learn in a clinic or from an audio tape, you tense muscles, then relax them.
- Exercise. Another way to relax your body is by moving it through a wide range of motion. Three ways to loosen up through movement are circling, stretching, and shaking parts of your body. To make this exercise more fun, move with music.
- Banish bad thoughts. If certain thoughts make you sad, angry, or nervous, don't think them! Of course, that may be easier said than done. One way to train yourself not to think bad thoughts is to put a rubber band on your wrist. When you catch yourself thinking thoughts that upset you, snap the rubber band.
- Replace bad thoughts with good ones. Each time you notice a bad thought, purposefully think of something that makes you happy or proud. Or memorize a poem, prayer, or quote and use it to replace a bad thought.
Whatever method you choose to use, practice it. Just as it takes weeks or months of practice to learn a new sport, it takes practice to learn these relaxation exercises.
When additional help is needed.
We at the Student Health Center know that attending college can be very stressful. The friendly and caring staff at the Student Health Center is available to help you identify the sources of your stress and can assist you in effectively managing your stress by providing you with the most appropriate treatments, including:
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
- Anti-depressant Medication
- Anti-anxiety Medication
- Assertiveness Training
- Relaxation Training