By: Asim Ashique
Have a stressful day at work last week? Relax. You’re not alone. 75% of us report that we have at least one day per week where we experience “great stress” and one third have more than two such days each week.
With the advent of modern time saving conveniences like microwave ovens, cellular telephones and e-mail one might have reasonably expected there to be more time for leisure. These things are designed to make our lives easier, right? Quite on the contrary, however, it seems that as time passes we’re all busier. Our lives are more hectic and we’re under more stress.
The concern with stress arises due to the impact that it has on our health. Stress, along with smoking and alcohol consumption, is among the major contributors to disease in our society. An estimated 75-90% of physician visits are due to stress-related illness. Over 10 billion dollars is spent in North America each year to fight the effects of stress.
What is stress? Simply put, stress is caused by a perceived shortage of resources, relative to the need. So if you need $2,000 per month to support yourself and your family, but make only $1,500 per month, then this will be a stressor, or stress trigger. The same principle applies with time, skill, knowledge and other resources. It’s an adaptability issue and the general formula used to represent it is: Stress = Need – Resources.
What is the stress response? The mind-body link is very potent. That is, emotional stress has a very real physical effect on our bodies. The origin of this is in the nervous system and can be seen in the “fight or flight response.”
When Allah (Most High) created our bodies, he built in an emergency response system. To illustrate how this system works imagine that you are sitting alone in a quiet room. If someone walks up behind you and says “boo”, there will be a series of sophisticated, but lightning quick changes in your body designed to prepare you for action. Your pupils will dilate, heart beat and respiration will increase, blood will be preferentially shunted away from the digestive organs and to the muscles; and hormones will be released to provide you with a burst of energy. You are now ready to either fight or run to protect yourself.
The stress response that most of us experience in less threatening situations is very similar. When we experience fear or anxiety in response to everyday stressors – traffic, work pressures, family obligations and tensions – the body initiates the same process, only on a smaller scale and often sustained over a longer period of time. And that’s where the problem starts.
A car can be driven hard and at high speeds periodically. It is designed to be able to do that. But if you floored it at each traffic light it wouldn’t last long. The engine would burn out prematurely due to increased wear and tear. Your body is the same way. Chronic or sustained stress, combined with poor coping skills, results in physical changes that increase the wear and tear on the body. Premature illness and death are the result.
What bodily changes occur due to stress? The cascade of physical changes in the body is initiated when a stressor stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight” system) which in turn stimulates the production of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is critical to the stress response: it raises blood sugar, increases heart rate and boosts the amount of energy available to your muscles. Cortisol acts to maintain heightened blood pressure and blood sugar.
How can stress cause disease? While cortisol has short-term benefits, such as providing essential bursts of energy during critical periods, scientists have become concerned about the hormone’s long-term effects on our health. Evidence shows that extended exposure to cortisol weakens bones, causes nerve cells in the brain to degenerate or perhaps even die, and compromises the immune system. A suppressed immune system means we are more vulnerable to infection and less able to heal from diseases ranging from small wounds to colds to cancer. Research shows that high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, skin problems, headaches, neck and back pain, insomnia, digestive disorders, ulcers, heart disease and stroke can all be related to chronic stress.
Stress is a huge problem in our society. Job stress alone is estimated to cost American industry $300 billion a year. That does not include the cost of personal stress, nor the “non-financial” costs of poor health in the form of poor quality of life. A simple variable like the number of marriages that suffer due to stress, and the real impact of that suffering, will never be known.
Good news! The exciting news is that while emotional tension is ubiquitous, there are techniques which have been proven effective in managing it. No matter what type of stress we experience, nor the quantity, we can each develop strategies for coping with stress so as to minimize the impact it has on our lives. Part II of Stressed out? will focus on stress management.
Burnout, nervous breakdowns, sleeplessness and other similar phenomena often find their origin in one thing – stress. In the last issue we discussed the prevalence of stress, the large role it plays in the causation of disease in our society as well as its social and financial consequences.
After understanding the seriousness of this problem, the natural question is “How can stress be managed?” For every illness Allah has created he has also created a cure; so as Muslims we believe in taking responsibility for ourselves by seeking solutions to our problems.
Here is a simple ABCDEFG checklist for managing stress.
1) Allahu Akbar! The best source of comfort comes from knowing that Allah is in control of all things. While we can’t always control our environment, we can maintain perspective and control our reaction to life events.
Sheikh Abdul Qaadir Al-Jilani would teach his students to never object to the will of Allah. He emphasized that the believers are most precious to Allah and He is always doing what is best for them, even if on the surface it seems unfavorable or unpleasant. There is tremendous solace in knowing that you’re under Allah’s protection. What happens to you, big and small, is all part of the plan.
Stress and its ultimate clinical manifestations – anxiety and depression – are fear-based phenomena. It is the fear of not having the time, money, security or other resources that leads to stress. And the opposite of fear is faith!
2) Breathe. Examine your breathing pattern in the morning. You will find that you breathe deeply and slowly. This is closest to natural breathing. Do the same at the end of the day and you will find your breathing to be short and shallow. As tension builds throughout the day it has a very real effect on our breathing pattern.
Notice that many people breathe with their shoulders as opposed to their diaphragm (abdomen) which is the primary muscle of inspiration. Poor breathing mechanics result in a gradual depletion of oxygen levels, making you more vulnerable to pressure and fatigue as well as postural stress and physical pain.
Take hourly breathing breaks. Spend sixty seconds doing deep diaphragm breathing with your eyes closed. Visualize your body exhaling tension, anger, self-doubt; and inhaling positive energy. Supplement this with daily yoga, Tai Chi or just simple stretching.
3) Chiropractic care. Emotional tension has a very real physical effect. The regular aches and pains that you feel are not normal. They are due to the accumulated effects of spinal stress and poor posture.
Get with the times. The days of skepticism about chiropractic are long gone. If champions like Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mike Tyson, Emmitt Smith, Mark McGwire, Evander Holyfield, Barry Bonds and Donovan Bailey attribute part of their success to regular chiropractic care, what could it do for you?
4) Distract and Diffusion. Things can only build if you let them. Don’t dwell on things. Especially things you can’t control. Give yourself permission to let go of it. Distract yourself with fun stuff regularly.
5) Exercise and Eat right. A good workout remains one of the best ways of blowing off steam. For maximum results one should do cardiovascular (aerobic) exercise for at least 30 minutes, 3-6 times per week. The best forms of exercise are swimming, cycling and other activities that don’t impact the joints. Avoid jogging if you have joint disease. There is a safe exercise for all ages and levels of health – nobody has an excuse. See you at Shapes!
Your food is your fuel. Garbage in, garbage out. The quality of your diet is an important determinant of your resilience. A poor choice of foods can leave you feeling sluggish and less physically able to meet the demands of your day. A mildly dehydrated state can suppress your energy level by 25% – so get your 8-10 glasses of water daily.
6) Finish it today. Procrastination is one of the foundations of burden-bearing. Putting things off allows them to build and makes a chore out of things that may otherwise be exciting and challenging.
In our hectic environment, adequate time management skills are essential. Be a doer, not a talker. Effective planning, scheduling and goal setting can be invaluable in allowing you to stay ahead of the game.
7) Good people. Most of us would agree that much of our stress comes from other people. In the same way that people can bring us down, they can also bring us up.
Surrounding yourself with people who are positive and encouraging by their nature will make you feel good. Seek out people who possess the qualities you wish to acquire. Avoid people who are toxic. Negative people need to be ditched.
Talking out your issues with a trusted friend, elder, sheikh or professional therapist can be helpful.