Friday, May 6, 2011

If You Don't Find the Balance, the Stress Will Kill You

When a deer is startled by a predator, it will bolt and run at high speed until it feels it's safe. Then guess what it does next. It finds a protected area and takes a long nap. It will sleep until it gets its energy back.

This is because when the fight-or-flight response is triggered, the deer's body is shocked by adrenaline and its system is under stress while it copes with danger. This expends a huge amount of energy.

In the human body, this coping mechanism is supported by the sympathetic nervous system. Another system, called the parasympathetic nervous system, takes over when the body is at rest. Under the stress of daily life, the body uses itself up. During rest, the body repairs, regenerates and builds itself back up.

Stress is good because it makes us focus energy to deal with the challenges of life. But unrelieved stress is bad. Without some rest and relaxation, the body's immune system can't do its work. This is why working too hard and too long without relief can make you sick. The immune system gets weak, damage doesn't get repaired and disease has an opportunity to grow in your body.

When Andrew Weil, M.D., said "The human body will heal itself if you give it half a chance," this is what he was talking about. By the way, if you've never read his book, Spontaneous Healing, you should. He's a traditional physician who opened his mind to study alternative medicine, and this is his report.

Years ago, a good friend had a stressful sales job in a big city. There weren't many women in her career field at the time, and she was under constant pressure to produce. She told me that she would sometimes come home late from work so exhausted that she'd get our of the car, go to her back yard and lie on the ground to "decompress."

Even though she lived a healthy lifestyle - she swam, lifted weights and jogged regularly, plus she was a health-food nut - eventually she got breast cancer. There may have been other factors, but she believes the unrelieved stress of her job may have allowed the cancer to get a foothold in her body. She has since recovered and has changed careers.

In 1998 my wife, Kathleen, and I moved from Miami Beach to Vero Beach, Florida. We bought the home from a couple in their 60s who were moving to a residential retirement community.

The house was perfect for us. It was on the market for only a few days when we offered the owners full price. We hired a home inspector and arranged a visit with the owners. As we walked from room to room with the inspector, we learned more about the house. After only 15 minutes, the man came into the bedroom and said, "You've got to leave."

"We'll be gone shortly," I said. "Another 15 minutes ought to do it."

"No, I want you out right now. You've been here long enough, and I want you out. If you're still here five minutes from now, I'll call the police."

This was a surprising turn of events. We needed time to finish our inspection, so we picked up the pace. But sure enough, as we walked out the front door, a patrol car pulled up in front of the house.

Later that week, the owner agreed to let us finish the inspection, and eventually we closed and moved in. When we met our new neighbors across the street, they told us that the couple wasn't well liked. They seemed to have it in for everybody, and they were hard to get along with.

Two weeks later, we learned that the woman had died unexpectedly. A month after that, her husband died.

Anger produces a stress response. If you're angry all the time and never let it go, it can prevent the parasympathetic nervous system from kicking in so the immune system can regenerate and do its work. I believe the two of them were essentially killed by their own anger. Eventually their bodies got so weak they couldn't self-repair and they failed.

Most of the people I talk to are passionate, obsessive, success-oriented high achievers. The smart ones also achieve a balance between work and their personal lives. They take time off. They know how to relax and feel joy. They rest, recuperate and then return to striving fully energized.

If you're like the deer, you'll feel that shock of adrenaline, turn on the energy and take care of business. But I hope you have the wisdom to rest when you're tired. Find a protected area, curl up and let go of all the striving.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .


andy said...

Thanks Denny - I needed to hear that.

Anonymous said...

rigidity and anger among the most dangerous of weapons since they almost always turn out to be self-directed.

Weil's book, Spontaneous Healing, has been on my reference shelves for a long time.

I've missed reading you, Denny, and look forward to catching up.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

I really like Dr. Weil. You are so right about stress and anger.