The concept of stress is as old as the Bible. Consider the story of Job. Through no fault of his own, Job experienced a variety of stressful events: his oxen, donkeys, and camels were stolen; his sheep and servants were burned in a fire; his son’s house collapsed on his children, and his body became covered with boils. Job lost his family, his wealth, his prestige, and his health. Although the problems we face may be less stressful than Job’s, all of us will experience trials and misfortune some time in our lives.
Whoever says life is easy has not lived long enough. If you do not manage stress successfully, the price can be great. The following statements are not just meaningless sayings:
“That accident took ten years off my life.”
“I was sick with worry.”
“This job is killing me.”
“He gives me a pain in the neck.”
The stress caused by an accident can age you prematurely. The stress caused by emotional worry can make you physically sick. Your job can affect your health. And the stress from dealing with difficult people and unpleasant situations can cause aches and pains in the neck, stomach, and other places.
Learning to manage stress effectively is one of life’s developmental tasks. It is the secret to living a long and satisfying life. For the typical person, half the source of stress is job-related and half is connected to home and family. If the workplace is stressful, it helps to have a port in the storm at home; if there is stress on the home front, ideally there is smooth sailing on the job. The person who is fighting a two-front war—problems on the job and problems in the home—has double trouble and is a candidate for what used to be called breakdown and is now known as burnout.
What Is Stress?
Stress is one of the most commonly used and least understood words in our language. The term stress has been used in various ways by many theorists. Some define stress as a stimulus or event, such as loss of job. Others define stress as the response to or effect of physiological arousal, sometimes referred to as strain. An approach that combines both views defines stress as a transaction—physical and emotional wear and tear resulting from real or imagined problems. Types of problems include:
- Pressures, such as the demands required to raise a family and earn a living.
- Conflicts, such as choosing between alternative careers, mates, and lifestyles. Conflicts include arguments with others and arguments with self. In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare wrote, “I am at war ‘twixt will and will not.”
- Frustrations, such as wanting but not being able to afford a home of your own or wanting but not having good relations with someone you love.
The human organism wears down with problems and age much the same as physical structures deteriorate from weather and time. Problems may be caused by self or caused by others. They may occur on the job or in the home. They may be large or small. They may develop early in life or late. Each problem exacts a toll; each results in physical and emotional wear and tear on the person. Like a metal bridge that deteriorates from the effects of weather and time, the human organism wears down and tears down with pressure, conflict, and frustration.
Perhaps the best definition of the aging process is “the wearing down and tearing down of the organism.” It is interesting to know that the bio-markers, or physiological signs, of aging are manageable. This helps explain why one 40-year old may look 50 while another 40-year old may not even look 30. Hans Selye, who is known as the father of stress management, explains the relationship between stress and the aging process:
True age depends largely on the rate of wear and tear, on the speed of self-consumption; for life is essentially a process that gradually spends the given amount of adaptation energy that we inherited from our parents. Vitality is like a special kind of bank account that you can use up by withdrawals but cannot increase by deposits. Your only control over this most precious fortune is the rate at which you make your withdrawals. The solution is evidently not to stop withdrawing, for this would be death. Nor is it to withdraw just enough for survival, for this would permit only a vegetative life, worse than death. The intelligent thing to do is to withdraw and expend generously but never withdraw wastefully for worthless efforts.
Many people believe that after they have exposed themselves to very stressful activities, a rest can restore them to where they were before. This is false. Experiments on animals have clearly shown that each exposure leaves an indelible scar, in that reserves of adaptability are used which cannot be replaced. It is true that immediately after some stressful experience, rest can restore us almost to the original level of fitness by eliminating acute fatigue. But the emphasis is on the word “almost.” Since we constantly go through periods of stress and rest during life, even a minute deficit of adaptation energy every day adds up—it adds up to what we call aging.
The philosophical question faced by every person is “Are you aging at the rate you want and for the purposes you want?” You only have one life to live—are you spending your life on what is important to you and at the pace you desire?
Personal Signs of Stress
People react to stress in different ways. Warning signals are varied and are unique to the individual. One person may have a nervous tic or bite her fingernails; another may crack his knuckles or grind his teeth.
David is a doctor in a busy emergency room. He feels overwhelmed by the long hours and huge responsibility he has for saving people’s lives. The pressure is even worse because he has no control over his work schedule as a new doctor. David must cover other doctors’ shifts when they can’t come in, sometimes with only last-minute notice. Although David has always been healthy, recently he has developed high blood pressure and is experiencing frequent migraine headaches.
In a nutshell, stress can damage your health. People under stress have a greater risk of experiencing health problems. Whatever your symptoms are, your body will usually tell you when you are experiencing too much stress, if you will only pay attention.
Seven Healthy Habits
To underscore the importance of following basic health habits, consider the following story:
One cold and stormy night a light appeared in the sea lane of the battleship Missouri. The captain ordered “Send a signal. Tell them to move starboard.” The signal was sent. But a signal came back, “Move starboard yourself.” Taken aback, the captain commanded, “Send another signal. Tell them to move starboard. This is the battleship Missouri, the mighty Missouri.” The signal came back, “Move starboard yourself. This is the lighthouse!”
When it comes to living a long and healthy life, some truths are eternal. The Seven Healthy Habits are beacons of light to live by. These represent the lighthouse.
Application: Seven Healthy Habits
The following habits increase your chances of living a long and healthy life. Indicate whether or not you practice these basic health habits. Give yourself one point for each “Yes” answer.
Scoring and Interpretation
How did you do on the Seven Healthy Habits test? If you scored six or seven, be glad. Research shows that you are likely to live 7.2 (women) to 11.5 (men) years past your normal life expectancy. Imagine adding years to your life by simply exercising regularly, eating properly, and getting enough sleep. Research indicates that the physical health of people over 75 years of age who follow these seven healthy habits can be as good as, if not better than, that of 35 to 45-year-olds who follow fewer than three of the habits.
- Berkman, L.F. & Breslow, L. (1983). Health and ways of living: The Alameda County study. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Guralnik, J.M. & Kaplan, G.A. (1989). Predictors of healthy aging: Prospective evidence from the Alameda County study. American Journal of Public Health, 79(6), 703-708
- U.S. Census Bureau (2008). Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2009 (128th edition). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce
- Centers for disease Control and Prevention (2007); and ProQuest Statistical Abstract of the United States (2013). Landham, Maryland: Bernan.