THE BLOG
05/29/2013 08:19 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

Silent Assassin: The Ticking Time Bomb of Stress

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It's a comment doctors are not surprised to hear from heart attack patients. "But... I didn't know I was stressed."

You can be the last to know about the time bomb ticking inside your body from chronic stress. This is particularly true for Type A's and workaholics, who are prone to ignore the signals -- the gastric volcanoes, insomnia, tightness in the chest, frequent headaches -- and keep doing what they've been trained to and gotten props for their whole lives, keep on going until the paramedics arrive.

That happened to Tom Row, a former scientist in Tennessee, who had a heart attack in his office and had to be carted off on a stretcher. "I didn't know I was even stressed," Row told me for my book, Work to Live. He racked his brain in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. What got him here on the brink of death? He realized that 60-hour workweeks, 10-12-hour days, and the lack of downtime to recover had done a number on his health.

In my work as a trainer in stress management, I run across people from every walk of life who have had to find out the hard way that chronic stress is a very insidious thing. It can be wreaking havoc on your body, and you can be completely oblivious to it. The problem is that stress sets off a flood of adrenaline, a hormone that masks the damage done being done by keeping the body in emergency mode too long. It plants a time bomb we pay for later -- not just the individual with a trip to the ER, but in staggering costs to the nation.

The stress response was meant to be a momentary event until you were out of harm's way. The changes it triggers in your body to enable you to fight or run -- suppressing the immune system and tissue repair system, jacking up blood pressure, interfering with gut function, decreasing the good cholesterol and increasing the bad -- aren't sustainable over the long run. The surge of adrenaline creates a sense of power, as it's supposed to in a real life-and-death emergency, a belief you are handling everything, when you are not. Over time you can wind up adapting to the adrenaline buzz, while the damage goes on inside.

This is one of many reasons we need regular stress screening and monitoring to walk us back from our ledges. Some 525,000 people have heart attacks every year in the U.S., like Tom Row. How many lives and tens of millions of dollars could we save with effective stress prevention? The lack of a plan to deal with stress fuels the last-minute myopia of our healthcare-by-ER system.

Most of us know it's important to monitor our cholesterol or blood sugar numbers. Why not our stress levels? The evidence tells us that stress levels are the most crucial item to be keeping track of, since stress is a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death, and, as I detailed on HuffPost last week, costs the nation a staggering $1 trillion a year, according to Peter Schnall's Unhealthy Work.

We can stop surprise heart attacks and save lives by making sure everyone has access to stress screening and management. Very few have access to these critical preventive services now. You can change that by joining with the Smash Stress Campaign to sign this petition here that would get stress screening and management covered for all, by making it a preventive service of the Affordable Care Act. It's a simple executive action that would add stress screening to 16 other preventive services, such as cholesterol screening and colorectal screening. This could be one of the most important actions you ever take, since stress plays a role in the vast majority of all doctor visits.

The Obama Administration released a 125-page document, the National Prevention Strategy, outlining the preventive approach that is the basis for the new health care law. It's a plan designed to keep people out of doctor's offices and ERs, yet stress prevention is left out of the equation. Stress is always the forgotten health hazard, with no social or political constituency to champion it. Policy-makers have been giving it the ostrich treatment for decades.

But ignoring it is only making it worse. Stress has grown as much as 30 percent for some in recent decades. Some 90 percent of Americans will have coronary artery disease, a condition multiple studies link with stress, by the time they are 75, cites the Center for Social Epidemiology. We can't afford the silent treatment any longer.

Humans are creatures of adaptation, and had to be through the eons, or we wouldn't still be around. We're so good at it our bodies have the ability to adapt to conditions that are extremely harmful, such as chronic stress.

But it's all a colossal mistake, a maladaptation. The ancient stress response was built for another time and place, tens of thousands of years ago on an African savanna. It doesn't
know how to cope with the social stresses of the modern world, which might be challenging, but aren't life-or-death. Identifying and managing modern stressors can turn off the danger signals, so they're not sowing the seeds of heart disease, cardiovascular problems, irritable bowel, cancer, stroke, and a host of other diseases that drive unnecessary suffering and unsustainable medical bills.

When we learn how to turn off the false danger signal of stress, the stress response stops in four minutes. We can get that knowledge out there through the stress screening petition and prevention movement.

Let's make stress prevention a normal, covered service and insure that everyone has the tools to avoid adaptation to self-destruction. It's nonsensical to wait until after the rush to the ER before we treat the root cause of so many chronic diseases. It's time to treat stress as what it is: America's number one health risk.

Joe Robinson is a stress management and work-life balance educator, speaker, and author of Work to Live, Don't Miss Your Life, and the Email Overload Survival Kit. You can find his work at www.worktolive.info and the Smash Stress Campaign at www.worktolive.info/stress-campaign

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