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The Link Between Stress and Illness

stress and relax

By Dr. Mary O’Brien MD

Medical researchers and physicians are often hesitant to proclaim stress a risk factor for serious illness. The reason is simple. Stress is, at least so far, impossible to quantify. We can attach a number to cholesterol or blood sugar or blood pressure or a host of other parameters of health. But we can’t pin a number on stress. Research into the effects of stress could proceed much faster if we could say, “Aha! A serum stress level of 274 mg per deciliter.” Perhaps someday we’ll learn how to measure things like stress, pain, and anxiety in an objective way. But for now we can only rely on our perceptions.

It’s no surprise that preventing serious stress is preferable to struggling with it after the fact. Unfortunately, stress has a nasty way of sneaking up on its victims. People often have a remarkable ability to cope with a stressful situation that’s isolated and well defined. The adrenal glands kick in, and you do what needs to be done. Then once the problem is resolved, you relax. During the crisis and war in the Persian Gulf, many service members and families found the actual war less stressful than the preceding waiting and uncertainty. Not that any phase of such a crisis is simple or easy, but the human nervous system is geared toward action and resolution. It’s not well equipped for long periods of tense uncertainty.

Prolonged, unresolved stress is incompatible with successful aging. No one can eliminate stress completely, but we can learn to prevent much of it and deal with the rest constructively. The “secrets” that follow can help your patients safeguard themselves against the serious, insidious stress that undermines health and happiness.

“Our minds need relaxation, and give way!
Unless we mix with work a little play.”
— Moliere

Moliere knew what he was talking about. Learning how to relax is essential in the battle against stress. It sounds so easy, and yet millions of people find it nearly impossible to unwind and relax completely. Some people are convinced they simply don’t have the time (which is probably the most important time to relax). But even having abundant leisure time does not guarantee the ability truly to relax. It’s possible to have nothing to do and still be a nervous wreck.

Relaxation is a profoundly personal issue. For one person, jogging five miles may accomplish a degree of relaxation. However, for another person, relaxation may come only through deep meditation.

The key is determining what works best for you and then doing it on a regular basis. It’s difficult to imagine anyone busier than the President of the United States. And yet, he and most of his predecessors have formally incorporated relaxing activities into their hectic schedules. There’s nothing self-indulgent about it. In fact, regular relaxation is an essential part of sustaining first rate performance on the job.

If you’re serious about getting a handle on stress, stop and think of the five most relaxing activities you enjoy. When was the last time you did any of them? If it has been more than a few days, you need to remedy the situation. Walk, swim, golf, sit in the sauna or simply sleep, but do something relaxing every day. It’s the best safety valve for serious stress.