More specifically, chronic stress is like a slow motion heart attack – or like a slow motion stroke (loss of brain cells – neurons) – or slow motion osteoporosis (loss of bone mass) or slow motion sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass). BUT, chronic stress can also lead to a vert “fast motion” development of chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, obesity, diabetes, and depression.
How to protect yourself from the detrimental effects of chronic stress? Lot’s of ways – but one of the most effective is to improve what some psychology researchers measure as our “social standing” in the community (also known as socioeconomic status – SES). We know from large and long-term research studies that as much as two-thirds of our risk for developing chronic diseases (such as stroke) is attributed to SES. Those with higher SES live longer.
One of the longest running studies of stress and health is the British Whitehall study (started in 1967) that has tracked nearly 30,000 London civil service workers. Why do you care? Because this type of long-term research show us that one of the most effective ways to reduce stress, feel better, and extend our lives is to develop ways to control our stress responses. In psychology research, we call this the “demand/control” model of stress – which means that it’s not necessarily the stress (the “demand”) that’s bad for us, but rather, it’s how we respond to the stress (or how we “control” ourselves). Even more specifically, our health also depends on how our body responds physiologically/biochemically to the stress.
The people with the highest “tolerance” for stress (meaning they can be subjected to lots of stress before resulting in any health problems) are those folks with a high degree of control over their work. This doesn’t mean that they have a low exposure to stressful events – it means that they have a high degree of choice about how to respond to the demands of their work. If you have a jerky boss and a menial job at the factory with no choice about how to best get your work accomplished, you are much more likely to suffer stress-induced diseases (like heart attacks and strokes) than someone with an even more stressful job, but who has a high degree of control over how they go about their job.
Perhaps the most effective way to “reduce” the detrimental health effects of work stress is to have some “creative control” over your job. We all still need to work – we need to make money – we need to put food on the table – but if you have a higher degree of control over your career, you’ll feel better, perform better, be happier, have better health, and live longer. There are hundreds of research studies showing the links between having a higher degree of “control” over stress leads to superior health outcomes, but one very interesting (and fun) study (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11352696) looked at how winning a Motion Picture Academy Award (Oscar) could reduce death rates (by about 28%) and improve life expectancy (by almost 4 years) – how can that be?
Well, the actors who win an Oscar have a much higher degree of “creative control” over their careers – you get to pick and choose from among the best roles and you don’t have to star in a film alongside Keanu Reeves or Martin Lawrence (unless you really want to). Creative control (whether you’re an actor or a lawyer or business owner or garbage man) leads to improved health outcomes – fewer diseases – higher Vigor – longer life – and improved well-being.
I’ve written extensively about the biochemical responses to stress – and how over-activating this stress-response system wreaks destructive havoc throughout every tissue and organ system in the body. People are finally starting to “get it” when it comes to DOING something about getting their stress under control – so they can feel better – or lose weight – or have energy again – or whatever. In my books and blogs and podcasts, I suggest dozens of approaches to help you control some aspect of your stress exposure or your stress response – here’s a short-hand list of a few that might be particularly effective:
1.Get a New Job!
•Find one that allows you a high degree of CONTROL over what you do and how you do it.
2.Balance your Metabolism!
•Stress upsets biochemistry in your body – which leads to feelings of “Burnout” – but restoring Metabolic Balance gives you the opposite of Burnout – called Vigor.
•Exercise increases the production of neurotransmitters (endorphins, oxytocin, norepinephrine, dopamine, etc) that can block many of the detrimental effects of stress hormones (cortisol) – so you feel better even when you’re under stress.
4.Reduce Junk Food!
•The negative health effects of stress are exactly the same as those from eating junk food – and being under stress drives (biologically) us to crave sugar, fat, and salt. Do #1, #2, and #3 above and your appetite will change away from garbage.
•You’ve heard the term “vicious cycle” before – when bad stuff happens, it leads to more bad stuff and an eventual S@#T-storm of badness. BUT – if you develop more control in your life (new job), and restore Metabolic Balance, and maintain that balance with good inputs (food/exercise), you can make that vicious cycle a cycle of goodness that continues to generate more goodness.
Thanks for reading,
Shawn M. Talbott, Ph.D.
Nutritional Biochemist and Author