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Stressing About Stress Relief

There are a number of ways to reduce stress. And these days, we should be turning to them.

As far as COVID-19 goes, there may be different opinions about masks, gatherings, and modes of transmission, but there is universal agreement that it causes stress. Although we all recognize it when we encounter it, defining stress is difficult. Here is my definition. Stress is the mind’s reaction to a situation one does not want to be in and results in some form of altered biochemical activity. You go to the doctor, she suspects you have a problem and immediately sends you for a test. Your heart begins to beat faster, you feel jittery and you may even sweat a little. What has happened? There was no physical stimulus, all the internal activity was generated by the mind, by thoughts. Consider another scenario. You are swimming at a beach and you suddenly notice a triangular fin sticking out of the water and heading towards you. You will head for the shore, swimming faster than you have ever swum in your life, a speed you will never again duplicate. What is going on?

To get a grasp on what happens in the body in such situations, we’ll climb into our time machine and travel back to the 1930s and the lab of Dr. Hans Selye at McGill University. It was here that Selye carried out a series of experiments that would lead him to coin the term “biological stress syndrome” and establish him as the father of stress research. Dr. Selye injected rats with a variety of toxins and noted that while there were various reactions depending on what specific chemical was used, there were also a number of common symptoms produced, irrespective of the nature of the toxin. The rats’ adrenal cortex enlarged, their spleen and thymus gland shrank, and bleeding ulcers developed in their gut. In other words, there was a reaction just from being stressed. Selye then went on to show that the same reactions could be produced by subjecting the rats to demanding physical or psychological conditions. Stress itself was capable of triggering chemical reactions in the body!

It didn’t take long to find out exactly what was going on. Under stress, the adrenal glands pump out adrenaline and cortisol which then cause the physical symptoms. And this happens not only in rats but also in humans. Stress, it seems, can raise our blood pressure, make us sweat and force our heart to beat faster. If there is underlying heart disease, it may even kill us. Of course, when being threatened by a shark, these chemicals are welcome since they pump glucose into our bloodstream to provide energy and they increase blood flow through the lungs to pick up extra oxygen. But when adrenaline, and especially cortisol remain chronically elevated, as is possible due to psychological stress inflicted by COVID-19, they can wreak havoc with our health.

Is there anything to do to mitigate the chemical consequences of stress? Actually, yes. There is sound evidence that cortisol levels can be reduced in a variety of ways. Exercise is a great reducer, unless done in an extreme fashion which increases cortisol levels. Adequate sleep is also important, meaning no caffeine in the evening and avoiding illuminated screens for an hour or so before going to bed. Admittedly hard to do these days as we struggle with health and political upheaval. Reading, instead of watching TV or surfing the web, is the way to go. Taking up a hobby can take your mind off stressful situations, as can listening to relaxing music or solving jigsaw puzzles. We have often heard that laughter is the best medicine, and while that may be an overstatement, laughter can reduce cortisol levels. Seinfeld, I think is a good treatment for COVID misery. Especially when you can laugh at it with a partner. Stable relationships reduce stress and arguments increase cortisol levels. It is very important to know what is worth arguing about, and what is not. Smell the roses and disregard the thorns.

Then there is yoga. Numerous scientific publications attest to its ability to cope with stress. Same goes for tai chi. Finally, the activity that is most discussed when it comes to stress relief, namely, meditation. I wish I could provide a more meaningful discussion here, but I’m not really sure how one goes about journeying to a meditative state and how one knows when one has arrived.

Oh, this is not for lack of reading or trying. I understand the need to find a comfortable position, to concentrate on breathing, and to bring a wandering mind back to being mindful of just breath going in and out. I’ve tried, but I’ve not been able to achieve that state of mindfulness, whatever that means, so exuberantly talked about by meditation proponents. I think frustration with attempts at meditation is causing me stress. For me, watching Seinfeld works better. As does venting about Trump on Facebook.


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