Your Health on Stress

the futureSo I’ve been thinking a lot about stress lately. Obviously, it’s because I’m in one of those work/personal periods where the word comes in all capital letters and my dreams seem to be caught on a continual loop of taking-an-exam-in-a-class-I-forgot-to-attend-all-semester (and yes, I’ve been out of school for 26 years now)/realizing-I-just-bought-a-new-house-and-have-to-move/or, finding-that-I-have-10-stories-due-tomorrow (for the newspaper at which I haven’t worked in years).

This latter dream comes closest to my own situation at the moment given that I find myself with just a wee bit too much work for the time allotted (ok, maybe a lot too much work). I’m coping–going to bed later, getting up earlier, reaching out to a couple of writer friends for help) but it nonetheless has my cortisol and norepinephrine hormone production on overtime.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Your health on stress.

I can’t begin to count the number of articles I’ve written over the past 25 years about the effects of stress on health. It’s one thing to write them, however, it’s another to actually see them. For instance, my 17-year-old son is in the midst of one of the most stressful times in an adolescent’s life: the end of his junior year in high school.

Between the end-of-year projects, AP tests, SAT scores, colleges to think about, girlfriend to manage (or, more precisely, be managed by) on top of the daily soccer games, fewer than 6 hours of sleep  he gets a night (thanks to ridiculously early starting times for high school in our area) and a mother who keeps pestering him about other things like a summer job and an honors project, it shouldn’t have surprised me to come upon him vomiting his dinner the other night. And no, he didn’t have a fever.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Everything,” he said between heaves.

And therein lies the rub.

When they were little, I could fix anything for my kids. Scraped knees were cured with Barnie band-aids, kisses and a Popsicle; bad dreams banished with a night of snuggling; that mean boy in first grade? Let me have a word with his mother.

But when it comes to the amorphous stresses of real life, of growing up, of imminent adulthood. . . .well, quite frankly, I’m stymied.

Oh, I can do the motherly things. Clean up the vomit, make an appointment with our family practitioner and with a therapist to check the status of his physical and mental health, make a list of everything that’s got him tied up in knots so he can see that it’s not quite as bad as he thinks it is. But I can’t make the stress go away. And only he can learn how to manage the stress.

It’s a lesson I’m hoping he can learn, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that stress is like a tsunami. Building slowly but capable of drowning you if you don’t stay ahead of it.

During this stressful period in my own life, for instance, I’m trying to keep ahead of the wave by picking up a rotisserie chicken for dinner instead of cooking something from scratch; making it a point to hit the gym even on days when I’m so swamped I’m ready to crawl into a fetal ball under my desk; and even taking an afternoon off when I should have been working to go fishing with my husband and son. Sleeping with a warm puppy snuggled against my side doesn’t hurt either (did I mention my husband is traveling for about a month, adding to the stress?)

I know that both my son and I are actually quite lucky; our stress is all related to good things: too much work, too many possibilities. It’s not tied to foreclosure, family problems, a lost job, a child off to war. But you know what? Our adrenal glands don’t know that. They don’t care what’s behind your stress, only that it exists. So they keep churning out those health-damaging stress hormones. Our challenge, then, is to find more constructive things for those chemicals to do than tear up our insides.

How do you manage stress these days? Has stress ever affected your health?

8 Responses to “Your Health on Stress”

  1. Bruce

    My favorite stress busters:
    Meditation (needs regular practice, otherwise your buzzing thoughts will keep taking charge.)
    3X weekly workouts, whether I feel like it or not.
    Fish oil. Yes, it really does work. Something about the favorable cytokine profile.
    Magnesium: very calming. Apparently, coffee drains the body of Mg through its diuretic action and you know what we writers drink too much of.
    Playing shakuhachi. Otherwise known as bamboo flute. Zen sounds drifting off into perfect silence. Best way to quiet the mind.
    Time to create. Drawing, poetry, music (as in above flute). Takes you out of your CEO left brain and into your hippie right brain.

    I'd like to make a plug for Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfullness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. I used it after an episode of serious burnout a few years ago and it is a powerful recovery tool. Intensive relaxation and self-care. Too little of that in our too-busy culture.



    Just got off a season of high stress Deb! The blog is fantastic – shut mine down as 'too much work' got in the way!

  3. Hannah

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  4. Genevieve Long

    That time right before college is extremely stressful for kids and parents. I'm sure your son will come through with flying colors just as Jacky's has done, and in the meantime it sounds like you are doing all the right things. (It's hard to break down and get that rotisserie chicken if you like to cook, as I do.)

    I find that insisting on taking a weekend day off – a Sabbath, if you will – makes a huge difference to my productivity and mood. It's like a mini-vacation. I know when you're busy you think you can't afford to do it, but I find I almost can't afford NOT to. Anyway, something to consider … or institute when things are less hectic, perhaps.

  5. Mary Brady Service

    I don't read your blog often enough — that will have to change — because, invariably, I nod my head in understanding or appreciation of your topics and the quality of your writing. Stress — there's always something and usually too many things — breathe deeply (I found [late] that yoga does help), walk around the block or down the road … I remember worrying about college acceptances; now, I worry about his retaining his teaching job. Time for a walk, perhaps. Hope it's a calmer day for all — pat the dog for me.

  6. Jacky Wu

    I'm also in the middle of a high stress period, taking on more projects than I should have and having too many old projects that refuse to die… could you just do these few extra edits for us….. I try to take the time to walk aroung my yard and admire the spring flowers or sit on the patio at the end of the day with a glass of wine. Going to the gym really helps, despite the massive effort it takes to get there.

    Your comments about your son were very familiar. Five years ago my son was in exactly the same place. Now he's about to graduate from college (a better one than I ever expected him to get into), with a double major, within the allotted 4-year time frame, and has kept playing soccer the whole time. But of course I still worry about him… little things like when is he going to get a job. You never stop being a mother!

  7. Alisa Bowman

    I cope great when under stress. It's like cocaine for me–not that I would know what it's like to be on cocaine, mind you. But it's the “after it's over” part that does me in. That's when my body falls apart and my brain shuts down and I feel weepy and just want to eat cheese doodles all day long. But a good cleanse always helps. I don't mean that in the woo woo Drink Juice Shakes for a Week sense. But being gentle with myself, eating lots of veggies, exercising…. that sort of thing seems to cleanse the stress gunk out.

  8. Star Lawrence

    You have a healthy kid who plans to go to college, a warm puppy and too much work? Can we get to the problem? Aw–just kidding. But a lot of people are glugging under with worse. I know–it's all relative. Actually, I think the broke, foreclosure, fear, dread stress IS worse. Got any clients you don't need?


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