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The Joy of Stress…by CARLA SCHRODER

I shamelessly stole my column's subtitle from a great book called The Joy of Stress, by Dr. Peter G. Hanson. It is a great book, a fabulous book, one you must find and read. It is about how to use stress productively, rather that letting it kill you.

We are besieged by nutritional advice—as though food were the only important factor in our health—to the point where it seems the only safe course is to become an Airian. (You know, the group that claims we can obtain all our nutritional requirements from breathing.) We are taught to regard butter as deadly, meat as lethal, and enjoyment of food as evil.

I do not believe that nearly enough emphasis is placed on the effects of stress. All this obsession with food overlooks some powerful, fundamental physiological processes that have a much greater effect on our health than what we eat. Humans are omnivores. We are designed to eat pretty much whatever is available, and make good use of it, not unlike goats. This is why food arguments are so unresolvable. We can exist quite nicely on a vegetarian diet. Or a meat diet. Or a dairy diet. Or any possible combination thereof.

Living with Stress

Everyone has heard of "fight or flight response." Dr. Hanson gives a great explanation of how your body responds to stress. Your thyroid releases more thyroid hormone, endorphins increase, sex hormones and digestive activity decrease, your liver releases cholesterol, heart rate increases, and your blood thickens. These are all positive responses to an emergency.

The increase of thyroid hormone speeds up your metabolism, providing quick extra energy. More endorphins decrease your sensitivity to pain. Digestive activity shuts down in order to divert all available energy to muscles. Extra cholesterol provides energy in place of the digestive system. Increased heart rate pumps more blood—and, therefore, more oxygen and nutrients—to the muscles. Blood thickens to reduce bleeding, carry more oxygen, and fight infection.

Unfortunately, modern life turns these responses into health threats. If you are under constant stress, with no adequate physical outlet, this is what happens:

Dr. Hanson includes a couple of questionnaires to help you evaluate your stress level and ability to handle stress. His thesis is not that stress is bad; what matters is how you manage it. Stress can be a wonderful energizer, as any writer faced with a deadline can attest. An unstressful life is a boring life, and boredom can also be lethal. Stress can elevate you to amazingly high levels of performance; ask any actor, athlete, or emergency room doctor. Read the book to learn how to utilize stress positively.

ZZZZZZZZ

Now let's talk about my favorite topic, which Dr. Hanson also discusses: sleep. A couple of months ago Nightline cited a survey that showed 41% of all people sleep less than 6 hours a night. Got news for you, darlings, that is not enough. Most humans need 7 to 9 hours.

Many of you short sleepers catch up on weekends. That's better than not catching up ever, but not much. Ideally, you should get enough good sound sleep each and every night. I speak truth: without enough sleep, you will age prematurely.

People talk about "running on adrenaline." That's pretty accurate. If you make it a lifestyle, you will burn out. Whenever I give a talk, or discuss this with my own clients, I meet a lot of resistance. Maybe it's our Puritan heritage; perhaps we would be more laid-back if the continent had been conquered by a more easy-going, tolerant group. (Easy-going tolerant conquerors, now there's a concept.)

The Joy of Stress covers sleep issues pretty well. Relying on drugs or other sleep aids, such as alcohol, L-tryptophan, Sominex, and so forth, is not a good idea. You don't get good quality sleep. Melatonin may have some real value as an occasional help, especially for jet-lag, but it shouldn't be used often. See your friendly naturopath for advice.

There is anecdotal evidence that falling asleep to TV gives you poorer quality sleep than listening to quiet music or reading. ( I don't much care for TV anyway; I believe people watch far too much, instead of having real lives.)

Reach Out and Touch

Finally, a word about what I do: massage. I have been very circumspect in these Computer Bits articles about discussing massage, lest it seem self-serving. For helping sleep and relaxation, you can't beat it. Most Americans are touch-starved. We be mammals, folks, and we need lots of touch.

You don't have to shell out big bucks to a professional massage therapist (though I wouldn't mind). Anyone can give a calming, competent back rub to a friend or loved one. If you need a little coaching, I or a good massage school can also teach the basics.

A kind, caring touch is valuable for skillions of things: calming a child, comforting a sick or hurting person, relieving pain, and just because it's nice to do.

About the Author

Carla Schroder, LMT, thinks the world would improve overnight if everyone got lots of massages. E-mail: erose@pacifier.com.

This article was originally published in the May 1996 issue of Computer Bits Magazine, and is copyright © 1996 by Bitwise Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.


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