Thoughts on Perceptions and Attitude

In a previous post, I described the experience of a person walking through a dark parking lot followed by a man. The body’s natural stress response was initiated as she perceived she was in danger. She raced to her car only to realize that she wasn’t in danger at all; she had simply been followed by someone who had parked near her. In reality, she wasn’t in danger at all.

What then, is reality? Reality is our perception of our surroundings. In a manner of speaking, reality for me will be different than reality for you. Could it be then, that our perception of what our surroundings are determines what evokes the stress response or relaxation? This doesn’t mean that if I feel stressed, I am not in a difficult situation. No doubt some circumstance has made you feel threatened, worried, or anxious in some way or another. However, it seems to me that if we can change the way we perceive our surroundings, then we can change how much stress we feel.

For example, I worked for a few years as an aide in a local hospital physical therapy clinic. As I worked with different patients, I began to notice a trend. Some patients came into our clinic excited to be there, anxious to learn what they could do to get better, and knowing that they were going to get better. Other patients came in frustrated that their doctor was making them waste their time with physical therapy. They were convinced that no matter what we did, they just were not going to get better. I was impressed to see that the latter group really did struggle getting better. They may improve for a time, but their progress would plateau before they were completely healed and back to normal life. On the other hand, those with a positive attitude and a perception of progress and improvement really would get better; furthermore, the healing generally seemed to happen in a shorter amount of time and more completely than their grumpy counterparts.

How do you see your surroundings? Do you see the future as glum and hopeless or bright and hopeful? Do you plan for success or do you consign yourself to failure from the beginning? Simply changing the way that we look at the world around us can greatly decrease our perceived stress and improve our mental and physical health.

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Stress Management

In response to many of the comments I received after the post about the effects of stress on the mind and the body, I have decided to dedicate this post to stress management. If applied, many of these principles can also improve relaxation, sleep, anger problems, and can aid in increasing energy and enhancing focus.

First, I would like to highlight some comprehensive resources on stress and stress management. The following are some of the best that I have found:

Mayo Clinic – Stress Management

WebMD – Stress management health center

U.S. National Library of Medicine

As you look at these resources you will notice many commonalities. Generally, each one approaches the stress reduction process in the same way.

1. Recognize your stressors.

2. Re-examine your response to these stressors, and recognize the unhealthy ways in which you deal with these situations, circumstances, people, or things.

3. Finally, develop some new coping techniques. Try more than one, and try them for a period of time before you say they don’t work.

Each of the above-mentioned resources describes some simple ways that don’t take much time that you can begin today to reduce your stress. Find some that work for you, and make them a part of your daily life. Life is too short to not enjoy it. Good luck!

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Another Connection: Walking and Mental Health

On November 29, 2010, a report produced by CNN revealed information about three studies that had been presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. One of the studies showed that “walking may slow cognitive decline in adults diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as benefiting brains of healthy adults.” The head researcher explained that brain volume is an important indicator in brain health; if the brain volume is decreasing that means that brain cells are dying, if the volume is maintained then brain health is being maintained. The participants reported distance walked in a week and had their brain volume monitored using MRI scans. The study shows that the greater the distance walked, the better the brain’s health is preserved.

Researchers recognize that regular walking is not a cure for devastating illnesses like Alzheimer’s, but it can increase the brains resistance to the disease and slow memory loss over time. The study showed that people who walk about one mile a day can reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s Disease by 50%. This link to the BBC contains an interview with Dr. Cyrus Raji, the study’s lead researcher where he talks about the important mind/body health connection at play in this correlation. With an aging population and no current cure for Alzheimer’s, simply walking could be a valuable tool to protect not only the physical health of our population, but mental health too.

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Social Support: Help is on the Way

Years ago, there was a comprehensive study done by the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General. Part of the study included how World War II troops responded to the intense stress of battle. Soldiers who felt “group identification” or “group cohesiveness” were better able to withstand battle stress. On the other hand, those soldiers who did not feel the connectedness of a small group, or those who’s group was disrupted during battle, were the soldiers that suffered psychiatric breakdown in battle. It was the sustaining influence of others that helped soldiers through the intense stress of battle. Likewise, the support of people that care about us will be one of the strongest indicators of how well we will overcome stressful situations.

In an article produced by the American Institute of Stress, it was reported that “The wisdom of the ages, anecdotal reports, numerous clinical studies, a wealth of epidemiologic data on death rates in married, single and divorced individuals as well as sophisticated psychophysiologic and laboratory testing all confirm that strong social and emotional support is a powerful stress buster that improves health and prolongs life.” Building and developing a strong social support can be a great emotional way to improve your physical health. The same report describes how having a happy marriage or a good long term relationship at age 50 was a leading indicator of being healthy at age 80, but having low cholesterol levels had little significance. This link describes the health benefits that come from social support at different stages of life. Makes you stop and think a little bit, doesn’t it?

It is true that it is difficult to measure social support and to exclude all other factors in the development and recovery of disease, especially chronic disease. However, the evidence of a growing body of studies is proving that social support is not only a factor, but potentially a strong factor in protection from or recovery from illness and chronic stress.

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The Power of a Good Night’s Sleep, Consistently.

Everyone has experienced how good it feels to wake up after a good night’s sleep: refreshed, alert, and ready for whatever the day brings. On the other hand, we all know what it feels like when we don’t get enough sleep, and many of us know how little sleep over an extended period of time feels: drowsy, slow to react, irritable, or just no energy. Sadly, the latter is probably more familiar to most Americans today. What most people may not realize is the actual danger they are putting their bodies in by consistently lacking sufficient sleep. Recent studies are linking a consistent lack of sleep with increased risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. This link describes the Harvard Medical School’s six reasons to not scrimp on sleep.

One study performed with teenagers showed that teens who consistently do not get adequate sleep not only perform poorly in academics and athletics and put themselves at greater risk of accident or injury, but they also put themselves at greater risk of depression. The study revealed that teens who’s bedtime is mid-night or later are 24% more likely to develop depression and 20% more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Furthermore, teens who sleep five hours or less a night are 71% more likely to develop depression and 48% more likely to have suicidal thoughts than those who sleep eight hours a night.

So, maybe we ought to be a little more diligent at getting to bed on time; not just because we have a lot to do tomorrow, but because we want to have as many tomorrows as we can.

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The Impact of Stress on Health

It’s been a long day of work, once again you have left just after the sun has gone down. With a sigh you begin to make your way across the parking lot to your car. As you step out of the lights from the building and into the darker parking lot you hear the faint footsteps of someone walking behind you. You casually glance behind you and your eyes catch the figure of a man also just moving out of the lights of the building into the darkness. You quicken your step a little and walk through the first row of cars; you don’t hear any car doors unlock or open and realize despite your quickened step the stranger doesn’t seem any farther behind you. Your heart begins to beat more quickly and your breathing becomes faster as you reach inside your pocket for the keys realizing that you’re only half way through the parking lot. You lengthen your stride as you make your way between the second row of cars and begin to pull out the keys. Your mind is racing, what will you do if…almost running now you get into to your car and put the key in only to realize that the stranger behind you has just started his own vehicle and is beginning to pull out. He drives away as you slide into your seat and wipe the sweat that has begun to bead on your forehead. Shaking your head, you laugh at yourself a little as you start the car. With a few deep breaths you feel your heart beat slow, your mind calm, and your hands stop shaking.

You have just experienced the body’s natural alarm system which many call the “fight-or-flight response” or the “stress response”. This natural reaction to danger or a stressful situation is a good thing and it allows our bodies to respond more quickly and our minds to think more rapidly to help us deal with an urgent problem. It is a fundamental link in the mind/body connection. During the stress response the body’s adrenal glands begin to pump out increased amounts of hormones called cortisol and adrenaline, among others. Adrenaline causes your heart rate to speed up, increases your blood pressure, and boosts your energy supply. Cortisol increases glucose in the blood, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and increases other substances in the bloodstream that aid in tissue repair. These result in the symptoms that we feel; faster pulse, faster breathing, heightened awareness and so forth. In small or short amounts, these hormones are incredibly beneficial, but what affect does a prolonged stress response have on the body?

If the stressors in your life remain for an extended period of time and leave you feeling constantly on edge, tense, or stressed, the elevated levels of the aforementioned hormones and the prolonged response to these hormones can inhibit the immune system and cause damage to the body. There are many things that can cause prolonged stress, including the death of a spouse or a loved one, divorce, job loss, starting a new job, family troubles, an unrepairable vehicle, financial trouble or a prolonged heavy work-load. In fact in a survey by the American Psychological Association, it was revealed that nearly 75% of Americans say that they are stressed to the max; most are attributing that stress to money, work, and the economy. Some of the greatest problem from prolonged stress are increased risk of heart attack, stroke, or blood clots due to high blood pressure, increased levels of cholesterol in the blood stream, the blood coagulating more readily, high or low levels of blood glucose, and continuously high levels of insulin. If left unchecked, prolonged stress can lead to many chronic diseases which can eventually lead to death. Learn more about the negative effects of chronic stress here.

This is not to say that we should avoid anything stressful; it is impossible to avoid all stress. We should however, learn how to manage stress and deal with it appropriately; this will be the key to avoiding the negative physical and mental health problems associated with chronic stress. Future posts will include important ways to help manage stress.

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Diabetes and Depression

Type II Diabetes and Depression; two growing health problems in the United States. Diabetes is a physical illness that is characterized by the bodies inability to use glucose and results in high blood glucose levels (blood sugar levels). Depression on the other hand is a mental health challenge. Depression is more than just a bout of the blues, it is characterized by prolonged feelings of sadness, irritability, loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities, and or insomnia or excessive sleeping among other symptoms.

A new study performed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health has provided evidence for a bidirectional correlation between the two diseases. Their research shows “women who suffer with depression were 17% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes… [and] women with diabetes were 29% more likely to develop depression than women without diabetes, even after adjusting for other mood disorders and risk factors. The likelihood of developing either disease was increased be the severity of the diabetes or depression that they already had.

The lead researcher Dr. Frank Hu believed that the likely common contributor to either disease is stress. Stress caused by depression lead to diabetes, and stress caused by diabetes lead to depression.

For the actual publication of the study click here.

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