Living in Stress Valley
I was fortunate to be raised by parents that love to vacation. Like many other Utah families, our favorite destination was Southern California. From our house, the beaches and theme parks were a straight shot down Interstate 15. In those days, the speed limit never exceeded 55 miles per hour, which made for a very long car ride. The most dreaded part of the ride was the stretch of scorched asphalt between Las Vegas and Victorville, which passes through the Mojave Desert and Death Valley.
I’m pretty sure that this portion of interstate has brought the demise of more radiators than any other. I remember trying to count the numerous cars that were pulled to the side with steam billowing from under their hoods. Before attempting this perilous portion of road, my father would make some specific preparations. First, he would have our radiator filled and serviced. Second, he would buy and pack extra radiator coolant. And third, he would calculate the drive to ensure that we would pass through the desert at the coolest time possible.
Our lives today are indisputably filled with stress. The extreme stresses that once accompanied the early career/family years, have stretched in both directions. We see children competing for placement in elementary school programs, job security has decreased, and the retirement age continues to creep upward. Not only does stress start earlier and last longer, but it accompanies us 24 hours a day. Pressures that were once left at the office or school are tethered to us through the technology revolution. Much more of our lives are being spent in the “Deserts of Death Valley” with the result being many more individuals finding themselves overheated along the side of the road.
Learning to Manage Stress
As we mentioned in Part 1 of this series, stress is often caused by achievement seeking behaviors and is not necessarily bad. Fortunately, stress was planned for in our creation, and accommodations were included. Just like automotive radiators, our stress mechanisms generally can and will function properly if we follow some basic principles.
First, Keep Your Radiator Filled; Eat, Sleep, and Exercise
Nothing will turn your stress into a breakdown faster than neglecting one of these three areas. In fact, two of these areas, sleep deprivation and the withholding of food, are specifically regulated by the Geneva Conventions and the UN Council as forms of torture. Going without food and sleep is really torturing yourself!
Your body is an extremely complex machine, and food is its fuel. When days are stressful and busy, forgetting to fuel-up is easy to do. Eating right, however, is more than just consuming calories. Due to the complexity of our cognitive systems, our meals should include a wide variety of nutrients. As Mental Health America explains, “…food is fuel, and the kinds of foods and drinks you consume determine the types of nutrients in your system and impact how well your mind and body are able to function.” 1 A lack of food and specific nutrients has been directly linked to a number of mental health problems including anxiety and depression.
One night I received a message from our daughter at the University, it read “Dad, help! I think I’m having a panic attack!” The University is close so I suggested that I bring her home for the night. As we drove back home I asked, “What have you eaten today?” Her reply was revealing, “Today was so crazy, I had a granola bar for breakfast and a handful of pretzels for dinner.” There was no coolant in her radiator, but she somehow expected it to continue to function well under high temperatures. A hot meal, and an hour later, and all was well again.
As a society, we continue to battle with self-inflicted sleep deprivation, disregarding the ever-increasing studies linking sleep to emotional and mental wellness. Chronic sleep deprivation has been shown to cause increases in type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. Truly, nothing will cause a psychotic break faster than continually getting too little sleep.
Sleep deprivation has also been linked to a decrease in inhibitions. We become more impulsive and in-turn our ability to make decisions weakens. Memory decreases, as do your physical capabilities. In short, our entire mental and physical systems are jeopardized when we fail to get sufficient sleep. 2
The Mayo Clinic, among others, has long been extolling the mental health benefits of regular exercise. Researchers at the clinic point to three potential causes for the positive results stemming from exercise; (1) exercise releases feel-good brain chemicals that may ease anxiety and depression (neurotransmitters, endorphins and endocannabinoids), (2) exercise reduces immune system chemicals that can worsen depression, and (3) exercise increases body temperature, which may have calming effects. 3 In addition to easing current symptoms of anxiety and depression, research suggests that exercise may also help keep anxiety from coming back once you’re feeling better.
Rest an Overworked Radiator; Take a Break
If you make the drive today, you will find that some savvy business people have built a small cluster of quick-stops right in the middle of that deserted stretch. They obviously knew something about radiators–even a well-functioning and totally filled radiator will need a rest when the driving conditions are extreme.
Similarly, a properly functioning and well maintained stress mechanism can function in unusually challenging circumstances for a limited time. But, if we fail to include time to cool down mentally and emotionally, we eventually overheat. The yearly vacation is likely not enough for the life filled with stress. It may be more beneficial to have small amounts of daily downtime, with more extended time on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. These de-stressing periods can include anything that helps remove you, and your mind, from the stressful situations of your life.
Reduce the Load on the Radiator; Remove Some of Your Stress
In one of my High School courses we built miniature Balsa wood bridges. Many elaborate designs came from our wooden sticks, cardboard strips and super glue. The strength of the bridges was tested in a press that recorded the pounds of pressure per inch at the point of collapse. I was fascinated by the fact that a single pound of pressure made the difference. One bridge held 319 pounds of pressure, but collapsed at 320.
Although each of the 320 pounds could be blamed for the collapse, it was the combined weight that caused the breakdown. The bridge was capable of handling nearly all the weight, but there is truth to the proverbial, “Straw that breaks the camel’s back.” Many a doctor has recommended a reduction in stress as a means for preserving health. Even though this advice seems dated, it is still very valid.
I have found that most individuals would like to reduce their stress, but struggle with deciding which pound to give up. When we are tempted to carry loads greater than we can bear, it is important to remember that a broken bridge carries no load at all. At times, we would like to off-load some of our stress but it just isn’t possible. In these situations, we might need to compensate for the added load by taking more frequent breaks.
Know the Signs of Overheating and Stress Managing Methods
Finally, I remember my father carefully watching the temperature gauge as we traversed the desert. If the gauges indicated the radiator was struggling, he would quickly respond. Similarly, we need to know and recognize the signs within us that our stress is reaching dangerously high levels and act accordingly.
No one technique mentioned here, or the dozens of others being advocated today, can stand alone as THE KEY to managing stress. A few extra hours of sleep will not resolve the problem of carrying more pounds of pressure than you can handle. Likewise, taking a week-long vacation will not be enough if you return to a life of sleep deprivation, poor eating, and little exercise. A combination of healthy daily living, patterns of de-stressing, and off-loading unbearable stress, may offer our best hope for managing stress in these increasingly stressful times.
- Health.com; http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20906153,00.html#you-re-always-hungry-0