There is a lot of stress in our lives these days. Stress envelops us. One man I know complained that even in his home, he does not feel stress free. When he puts on the television or radio, the now-commonplace partisan viewpoints surround him. And that is the least of it. The horrific shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue, pipe bombs sent to at least 15 different targets perceived to be Democratic in nature throughout the United States, the shooting at a school in North Carolina and more make up some of the news just this past week. There seems to be no escape. Even conversation with customers or spouses inevitably touches on the daily stressful events.
Surely there have been times of even greater stress in our country. World War II comes immediately to mind. The Cold War, with regular air raids, was another. The Cuban Missile Crisis was yet another. But these were all threats from outside: from the Nazis, the Japanese, the Soviet Union. The stress today, whether rhetorical or physical, is domestic and aimed by Americans against other Americans. Worst of all, as political partisans denigrate opponents and gun violence becomes tragically routine, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
Can we learn to manage the stress in our lives? The Harvard Women’s Health Watch advises that we can. In the August issue, published by a division of Harvard Medical School, physicians offer some information about stress and its effects. They also give some suggestions for coping with stress.
First the information. “It’s not uncommon to feel disorganized and forgetful when you’re under a lot of stress,” the article, “Protect your brain from stress,” explained. “But over the long term, stress may actually change your brain in ways that affect your memory.” Because stress can influence how the brain functions, including not only memory but also mood and anxiety, it can cause inflammation. This in turn can affect heart health. Thus stress has been associated with multiple chronic diseases of the brain and heart, according to Harvard physicians.
The brain is not just a single unit but a group of different parts that perform different tasks, according to the Harvard article. When one part is engaged, researchers believe that other parts may not have as much energy for their specialized functions. One example is if you are in a dangerous situation, the amygdala section takes over to ensure survival, while the energy level in parts having to do with memory or higher-order tasks recedes. Hence you might be more forgetful when stressed.
“There is evidence that chronic (persistent) stress may actually rewire your brain,” according to the research, as if exercising one section makes it stronger while other sections, like that having to do with more complex thought, take “a back seat.” Such brain changes may be reversible.
There are various kinds of stress. For example, one feels differently before taking a big test compared with that experienced in a car accident. More stress is worse, and long-term stress is generally worse than short-term stress, according to the physicians. Unpredictable stress is worse than stress that can be anticipated. Chronic stress can be more challenging than one that will end shortly. Feeling supported by others most likely mitigates stress effects.
So here is some advice from the Harvard publication on how to cope with stress. Establish some control over your situation such as by setting a routine. Get organized. Get a good night’s sleep — hard to do when stressed but going to bed and waking up at the same time each day helps, as does avoiding caffeine and creating a relaxing sleep environment. Get help, sooner rather than later. And try to change your attitude toward stress by striving for healthier responses to stress. Use its effects, if you can, to high power you to a goal. Like voting.
And I say, turn off the television and the instant news briefs on your cellphone for some quiet time each day.