It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, most people probably including you, as you are reading this article are more stressed out than ever. Most books on stress are about “coping” with stress. Their goal is to help you deal with the symptoms of stress headache,upset stomach, irritability, lack of sleep, and so forth. This article gives you up-to-date coping skills, but our goal is much greater than simply helping you cope. We get to the roots of the constant stress you feel. We help you remove from your life the causes of overwhelming stress which is far more valuable than just treating the symptoms.
As Henry David Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” There are lots of books that hack at the branches of stress; this article strikes at the root, and that’s why we wanted to write it. Too many books stay on the surface of the problem of chronic stress. Even doctors often treat only the symptoms on the surface. In this article, we go beneath the surface to explore why you’re tense and anxious and get to the sources of your stress. The dictionary defines the term unwind this way: “to make or become relaxed.” But it includes an additional description that communicates this deeper emphasis on the real cause of stress:
“to lose from a coiled condition.” Essentially, your chronic habitual thoughts and emotions that tend to lead to chronic stress have to be unwound, changed, and replaced in order to prevent stress from happening. You’ve spent years, perhaps decades, winding up patterns of thinking that unknowingly lead to high stress levels. These can change. You’ll also learn the best-known ways on the planet to turn off the stress response to relax. The truth is that most stress comes from the inside out, not from the outside in. It originates in your own mind rather than in the outside world; that’s why it’s controllable. And you can get control of it.
we’d like to explain up front that this article is profoundly influenced by the thinking of Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In that book, Dr. Covey shows how to solve our problems “from the inside out” instead of waiting for the outside world to solve our problems for us. Dr. Covey’s key insight: “The moment you think the problem is outside of you, that thought is the problem.” We recognize that stressful things seem to happen to us, but in reality, the stress we experience is almost always self-generated. In his work, Dr. Covey brings to light seven patterns of thinking that are the roots of ineffective living, along with ways to change those thought patterns. In our work, we have found that the same principles underlying the seven habits can be used to overcome chronic stress which isn’t surprising, as they are simply the basic principles of effective living.
Dr. Michael Olpin is the director of the Stress Relief Center at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. Michael has made it his life’s work to help stressed out people find peace. He has taught in several universities across the United States and authored a popular textbook on stress but his most interesting achievement is the Stress Relief Center itself. Here, anxious college students learn a whole-person approach to changing their lives. They get immediate relief from an array of amazing machines a chair that enfolds them and massages every limb and joint, inversion tables for hanging upside down, a vertical treadmill that works your legs while you lie flat all in darkened, womblike rooms aromatic with soothing fragrances and quiet music. But beyond these mechanical solutions, Michael teaches people how to live mindfully, get control of their lives, become more purposeful and organized, balance priorities, communicate empathically in short, to master stress “from the inside out.” His students often exclaim, “Dr. Olpin changed my life.” Michael shares with you his personal insights throughout this book. Coauthor Sam Bracken is not a practitioner he’s more like a patient. A successful marketing executive and motivational speaker, Sam spent much of his life debilitated by stress. Abused as a child, abandoned, and left to fend for himself in a world of poverty, violence, alcohol, and drugs, Sam found an escape route from all that through college athletics. But his painful past continued to haunt him and fill him with anxiety add to that a driven personality and you have a recipe for lifelong, high-pressure stress. It was not until Sam discovered how to change the thought patterns that he began to overcome the anxiety that was draining his life away. Throughout this article, you will hear Sam talk about how, with the help of Michael Olpin and others, he changed his thinking and purged chronic stress from his life. Although we might not have the traumatic background of a Sam Bracken, many of us still ache with anxiety most of the time. We might not even recognize it as stress, although our heads hurt; our blood pressure is up
● The financial costs of stress are staggering—in the United States alone, some estimates run as high as $300 billion per year in lost productivity because of illness, absenteeism, and decreased productivity.
● Worldwide, 30 to 40 percent of employees report their work as “very or extremely stressful.”
● Forty percent of job turnover is due to stress.
Stress is almost twice as likely to cause you to miss thirty days of work in a year than all other illnesses put together.
● Costs of health care for stressed-out workers are nearly 50 percent higher than for low-stress workers.
● People under stress shift to a superficial style of thinking.
● Britain: Nearly fourteen million workdays are lost every year due to high stress.
● Stress is a more dangerous risk factor for cancer and heart disease than either smoking or high-cholesterol foods.
● Europe: More than half of job absenteeism is due to stress.
● India: Half a million professional workers per year become ill from job-related stress.
● Japan: Women who report high levels of mental stress are more than twice as likely to die from stroke or heart disease than those with low stress levels.
● United States: Double Digit increases in workers compensation premiums every year as a result of mental stress claims threaten to bankrupt the system in several American states.
● At least six out of ten doctor visits are due to stress.
● Forty million Americans are on antidepressants, including 25 percent of women between the ages of fifty and sixty-four.
● Scandinavia: People suffering from “job strain” have a 25 percent higher chance of developing heart disease.
● United States: The average hourly wage is around $21. If ten workers each lose twenty-five days a year due to stress-based illness, the cost to the employer is $42,000 the equivalent of one full worker’s yearly wage for no return. Of course, you know deep down what stress is costing you personally. You can lose income through lowered productivity or absenteeism you might even become unemployable. You know what stress feels like:
● Bouts of anger or hostility
● Lethargy, fatigue, mental slowness
● Headache, muscle tension, stomach pain, ulcers ● Insomnia, irritability, depression
● Weight gain or loss, eating disorders People around the world consistently report these symptoms of high levels of stress. Many select more than one symptom:
● Irritability or anger: 42 percent of the population ● Fatigue: 37 percent
● Lack of interest in work,motivation, or energy: 35 percent
● Headaches: 32 percent ● Upset stomach: 24 percent ● Changes in appetite: 17 percent ● Lower sex drive: 11 percent You might have some or all of these symptoms of stress. You might identify with one of these real people:
Chicago: Christine had worked for fifteen years as a university administrator. She had done all kinds of important and not-soimportant things. In other words, she had put in her time,developed a network, and learned a lot. So when the dean’s job opened up, she applied for it. To her delight, she was offered the job. And that’s when the trouble began. She started suffering from insomnia, staying awake every night and worrying about things. She stopped exercising because she couldn’t find time to fit everything in. She started putting on weight because she skipped meals in favor of something quick she could swallow on her way to the next meeting. Life was not so delightful anymore.
Tokyo: For Shigeo, an IT consultant, life was pretty complicated. Just making a living was hard. “It’s recession here and recession there—all everyone talks about is the economy.” He worked all day and then spent hours at night drinking with customers. “It’s necessary to keep up the business.” Then he won a big contract for his company. Somehow it didn’t help; he still felt more than ever like smashing things. So he did. He went to “The Venting Place,” an unusual doctor’s office where, for 1000 yen, Shigeo could scream and throw dishes against a concrete wall.
Stockholm: Senta was a public health nurse overwhelmed with patients. After being on her feet all day, she went home to her son and daughter and a night’s schoolwork. After the children were asleep, she did laundry, washed dishes, and paid bills with never enough money. Her back hurt and her headache never quite went away. One day she fell far behind on her appointments. Running to catch an elderly diabetic who needed an insulin injection, she arrived just as the old lady’s bus was leaving. So she handed the insulin dispenser through a bus window but it was the wrong bus. Now she was in real trouble.
You might be like Senta, overwhelmed, underpaid, always behind on everything, and with an interminable headache. Then there’s Christine and Shigeo, who finally got what they wanted, yet they’re stressed out anyway. Don’t people usually feel happy and accomplished when they get what they’ve been working for? People aren’t supposed to be stressed out when good things happen, are they? The stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight response, is designed to kick in when something awful happens, especially when we are in immediate danger. For example, from Michael Olpin: I was riding my bike on a mountain trail near my home. I rode uphill for quite a stretch and was feeling worn out. The trail continued through some trees, and the ascent continued. I was feeling exhausted, barely able to continue. Just as I came around a corner, I heard a rattlesnake with its rattle shaking. Without a second’s thought, I at once had a huge burst of energy and flew up the mountain trail about fifty yards. I was exhausted but at the same time very grateful for the immediate burst of speed and power that helped me escape a real threat.” The stress response is obviously extremely useful. In times of real danger, it helps us to amass great strength, focus clearly, and increase speed. How does it work? When a rattlesnake (or the equivalent) crosses your path, a region of the brain called the hypothalamus dispatches a signal to your pituitary gland. From there, a chemical signal shoots through your blood. The adrenal glands above the kidneys read the signal and pump out hormones that do all these things:
● Heart rate, breathing rate, and oxygen consumption rate all shoot up dramatically.
● Metabolism and blood sugar skyrocket.
● Adrenaline and cortisol hormones are pumped into every cell in your body.
● Sensory awareness goes up while your perception of physical pain goes down.
● Muscles contract more efficiently, especially the running and fighting muscles.
● The blood clots more easily so you won’t bleed out from injury while you’re fighting or fleeing.
● Cholesterol output increases.
● The immune system slows down.
● Blood tends to shunt away from your extremities and toward your running and fighting muscles.
● The reproductive and digestive systems cease functioning normally.
● Higher-order thinking switches off.
● Body hair stands on end.
Why do all these physiological changes take place? Your brain knows the snake could kill you, so your body pulls out all the stops to keep you alive. The combined effect of these changes is to make you stronger and faster so you can fight or flee more effectively. And as you plow through the forest at lightning speed, you might not even notice the scratches you’ll be getting from tree branches and bushes something you would certainly notice while working in the garden but that your body ignores for now, thanks to the stress response. What are a few cuts and scrapes compared to a lethal snakebite? Once the danger passes, the body returns to a state of equilibrium called homeostasis. So short-term stress called episodic stress can be a good thing. It’s your body’s way of keeping you alive in the face of danger. In fact, stress defined as a challenge (eustress) can be highly motivational. If your goal is to lose some weight and you spend ten extra minutes in the gym each day that is, you “stress” your muscles for ten extra minutes you may find that stress is your best friend, helping you get in shape and become healthier.
Stress is good—unless it lasts a long time or you are pushing the stress button all the time. You see, the body wasn’t designed to be running away from poisonous snakes for longer than a few minutes or so. Our bodies are not intended to endure the kind of 24/7 stress that Christine, Shigeo, and Senta experience. Momentary stress is natural; chronic stress is not. Logically, you might think the human body developed to sustain chronic stress. After all, weren’t our primitive ancestors under constant stress due to poor food, bad habitations, animal attacks, and so on? Probably not. The stress response of ancient peoples was not always “on.” For example, anthropologists studying the native peoples of sunny southern California before European contact have found that they enjoyed a rich, healthy diet and were able to provide for all their material needs with just a few hours of work a day. Then they relaxed. Starvation was virtually unknown. Some of them lived to be over one hundred years old, without the aid of cholesterol-lowering drugs or blood thinners to ward off heart attacks and strokes. They lived to an old age naturally.16 No doubt they experienced episodic, occasional stress, but the long term, slow-burn stress so familiar to us was probably not part of their lives. This is the body’s basic formula for responding to the sudden appearance of a threat (like a poisonous snake):