Stress is a word that most of us toss off lightly, a word we use to describe our emotional response to any number of emergencies, demands, deadlines, or pressures. But technically, stress is both a psychological and physical response. Along with the new millennium, we have a new kind of stress: SuperStress. It is the result of our over-stimulated, over-extended modern lifestyle. The diagnosis of SuperStress describes a physical and emotional state that resembles post-traumatic stress disorder. SuperStress leaves you feeling unable to catch up or get a handle on things; it saps you of your sense of humor and perspective about what's important in life. Duration and regularity of stress become silent killers. In the larger context of health, study after study has shown the link between chronic stress and the worsening of many medical conditions such as coronary artery disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal issues, obesity, high blood pressure, asthma, autoimmune and inflammatory diseases and cancer.
The reason we find ourselves in this new and unwanted predicament is tragically simple: for most people, life today means less sleep, less leisure, and less exercise than ever before. It means more junk food, more caffeine and more work. Our 24/7 news cycle shouts at us from every screen, keeping us on edge with haunting images of war abroad, terror at home, and threats to our finances and health around every corner. Is it any wonder anxious is the new normal? You might not think of any of these issues as specific stresses, but our bodies perceive each of these things as "emergencies" and the automatic, physical response is the result each time. Because we don't give our bodies time to reset to a default state of relaxation in between perceived crises, stress hormones build up in the body and, in essence, keep the body switched to "high alert," diverting energy and nourishment away from healthy system maintenance like proper digestion and nutrient absorption, hormone balance, and energy management. The result is a cluster of dangerous symptoms: immune deficiencies, high blood pressure, chronic headaches, weight gain, digestive distress, insomnia, and a wide range of other ailments.
In addition, SuperStress can cause or exacerbate insomnia, it promotes hair-trigger emotions, and creates a numbing effect: we often mistakenly identify ourselves as "being in control" and able rest at will. Too many of us actually believe that we are more productive or more efficient under stress. Nothing could be further from the truth. With the illusion of health, the insidious biological cycle continues.
I regularly see patients in my medical practice who are plagued with vaguely troubling symptoms like anxiety, foggy brain, and emotional sensitivity as well as more specifically menacing symptoms like substance abuse, sleep disorders, rage, and withdrawal from life. Many come in bewildered by what they are experiencing-- everything from strange digestive, allergic, respiratory, sexual, and skin problems to autoimmune dysfunction and heart disease. While some patients do understand what's happening enough to complain, "I'm so stressed out!" the great majority has no idea that stress is playing a significant or catalyzing role in their afflictions. All they know is that they've slipped over an edge, that they've caught something that won't go away. That something is SuperStress.
Of course, you won't always be able to control the duration and regularity of stress in your life. Yet another deadline at work will surely get piled on top of the project you broke your back to finish on time; you may still have more bills to pay than money to pay them; you can't control family emergencies.
The good news, however, is that you can control your own response to stress. Understanding that your body and mind need recovery time between perceived emergencies - small oases of physical and emotional calm to break the cycle of the physical stress response- you can begin to pace yourself differently and protect your health by building that kind of calm into your otherwise frenetic day. Deep cleansing breaths are an essential component of training your nervous system to reset to a state of calm in between storms. Short walks around the block and pockets of time in which you commit to being email or news- free can help short-circuit your body's non-stop reaction to the "noise" in your life. Eating fewer processed and fatty foods will tax your digestive system less, leaving you more resources to fend off stress; better "fuel" will yield healthier results.
The first step toward freeing yourself from SuperStress syndrome is to understand the toll stress takes on you personally. Get started by filling out the following questionnaire. It won't take much time at all, but will help you better understand what you're experiencing, and determine your individual level and type of SuperStress so that you can personalize your management plans. Once you are aware of the ways in which stress affects you and you begin to follow the steps of my solution, you'll notice that the inevitable stress in your life will affect you less both physically and emotionally. With self-awareness comes stress resilience. In other words, the goal isn't to hope stress will go away (it won't!). Rather my SuperStress Solution is a plan that is designed to help you live more healthfully in a world in which stress doesn't just go away.
Respond to each question, using the following 4-point scale:
0 = Never
1 = Rarely
2 = Sometimes
3 = Often
1. How often do you feel like you are getting sick? ____
2. How often are you eating on the run (at your desk working, while driving or walking)? ____
3. How often during meals and meetings do you respond to emails/text messages on your PDA or cell phone? ____
4. How often do you skip meals because you are too busy to eat? ____
5. How often do you feel that watching TV is the most relaxing activity you do? ____
6. How often are you forgetful? ____
7. How often do you feel tired during the day? ____
8. How often do you feel that your life is out of control? ____
9. How often do you have trouble focusing? ____
10. How often do you lie awake at night ruminating? ____
11. How often do you have a difficult time sitting still? ____
12. How many times do you feel exhausted and can't seem to recover -- no matter how much rest you get? ____
13. How many times do you find yourself reading the same paragraph over and over and feeling increasingly frustrated that you just "don't get it"? ____
14. How often do feel like you are close to tears or sensitive to the criticism of others? ____
15. How often do you try to do everything yourself? ____
16. How often do you feel you are fighting a losing battle trying to keep up with your kids' sports schedule, French lessons, dental appointments and homework or your own work deadlines?____
17. How often do you have two or more major problems that you can't seem to resolve? ____
18. How often do you feel as if your stomach is tied up in knots? ____
19. How often are you canceling social engagements or family outings to finish a work project? ____
20. How often do you find yourself angry and annoyed with others-including those at home? ____
Are you stressed?
Tally your answers to all 20 questions.
Based on your total, see how you fall into the following categories:
Not stressed: 4 or less
Somewhat stressed: 5-8
What stress type are you?
In my clinical practice, I generally see five SuperStress personality types, each identifiable by the way you behave and respond to stress and by the physical symptoms you may be experiencing. Many of you, however, may see that your behavior corresponds to more than one type.
For each category below, tally your answers for the listed questions and note the one with the highest total. That is your stress type. In the case of a tie, your behavior may correspond to both stress types.
Probably Not your type: 0
Could be your type: 1- 2
Probably your type: 3-4
Total for questions 12 and 16 ___Type I
Total for questions 13 and 17 ___Type II
Total for questions 14 and 18 ___Type III
Total for questions 15 and 19 ___Type IV
Total for questions 11 and 20 ___Type V
Type I: Burned Out, Exhausted, Numb, Depressed
This SuperStress type is often categorized by the sense that you are fighting a losing battle trying to keep up with an ever-growing to-do list: your kids' needs, your own job, and so much more. You are likely experiencing extreme fatigue when you get up in the morning and repeatedly throughout the day. You've reached the point where stress has been present for so long that you can no longer mount much of a reaction and you have started to "check out" emotionally. Take heart: eating right will go an especially long way toward helping to moderate type I SuperStress. High-antioxidant, whey-based, breakfast shakes should become part of your diet, as should at least an ounce of chocolate every day!
Type II: Agitated, Can't Concentrate, Overwhelmed by Life
Type IIs often report that they have days when their agitation is so great that they're distracted by their own restlessness; sleep no longer comes easily. If this describes you, for starters - and long-term - you'll want to consume a diet that works against inflammation and you will also want to start taking several specific supplements to support good sleep. Also, try this: drink five cups of tea a day - either green tea or chamomile tea, sweetened with honey if you choose - spaced out over the course of the day and evening.
Type III: Emotionally sensitive
If your questionnaire score suggests you're a Type III then you have likely lost your sense of humor and are sometimes weepy or melancholy, despite your best efforts to be your old self. Every little stressor hits at your digestion: you are often bloated, gassy, and crampy. You will do well to stay with small amounts of low-fat animal protein and seafood and lots of greens and ripe fruits. Increase your turkey consumption. Walk 20 minutes a day to help regulate your nervous system.
Type IV: Driven, Controlling
The Type IV SuperStress personality is a first rate goal-setter and goal-achiever and that's admirable. But the flip side is that over-attention to detail and micromanagement have become the only way you can handle situations that feel out of control. If you're one who approaches your life in this manner, I'm willing to bet you have symptoms that reflect this tension, such as constipation, neck pain, back pain, and stomach problems. You need to stick to a Mediterranean style eating plan and you should likely start on a probiotic supplement. "Burn off steam" through exercise - a half hour a day if you can find the time, and make time for family and friends again regularly - this will trigger the release of oxytocin, the "feel good" hormone.
Type V: Explosive, Can't Slow Down
This type describes you if you use every means possible to keep things going at an ultrafast pace, living on caffeine and sugar-laden foods. You probably have little tolerance for mistakes and have been known to overreact or explode when mistakes are made (yours or someone else's). If so, there are steps toward tranquility that you can begin to take right now. You're going to need to wean yourself off so much caffeine (but don't go cold turkey; follow my progressive one-less-cup-a-day plan) and begin to choose foods with natural sweeteners instead of sugar. To stabilize moodiness and support relaxation, take magnesium glycinate. As for exercise, for Type Vs, what's more important than the amount of time you spend at any activity, is that you do something every day.
By helping you identify your level and type of stress, my book, The SuperStress Solution, will provide personalized strategies for managing it. The book contains a more extensive version of the questionnaire you just completed, which will enable you to get even more tailored results. In addition, you might want to take the typing portion of the questionnaire online so you can easily tally your results and jump right into the 4-week SuperStress Solution program.
Take the longer quiz online at SuperStressSolution.com.
Roberta Lee, M.D. is Vice Chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine , Director of Continuing Medical Education, and Co-Director of the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel's Continuum Center for Health and Healing (CCHH) at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Author of the book The SuperStress Solution to be released in January 2010 by Random House.
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