How Stressed Is Barak Obama, Really?

Obama's Hair on Stresshacker.comThe question on everybody’s keyboard these days is, how close to cracking under stress is our seemingly unflappable president? No punches are pulled in the brave world of US politics, so the bloggers and the pundits and the Beltway insiders, in short everybody and his brother, are speculating over Mr. Obama’s hair. His hair? Yes, it seems that the issue of major import is the (fast-changing) color of the president’s once jet black hair. The fact that it is turning gray rather quickly and rather visibly is being taken by Obama-watchers to indicate that stress is taking a toll on the chief executive and that it is only a matter of time before other more alarming stress symptoms will be revealed.

Obama-Weight-LossInterviewed by British reporters, the president said that while he is indeed going gray, reports that he is skipping meals and shedding pounds are untrue. He claimed his weight fluctuates by about five pounds – less than half a stone – and has for the last 30 years. He also claimed on American television that while the multitude of issues facing the country do weigh on him, being president is a privilege. Even his gray hairs are more a sign of age than of stress, he said. That being revealed, the flood gates opened on another allegedly unmistakable sign of stress: Mr. Obama’s current eating habits.

The Washington Scene, stoked by the president’s own press secretary and by recent revelations on the Jay Leno Show by Obama’s senior advisor David Axelrod, quoted the latter as saying, “One of the things that happened when [Obama] came to the White House is they have a great pastry chef. It became a big problem.” So here comes a very timely report on the president’s recent physical check-up, which revealed two other (it is implied) unmistakable signs of stress: his cholesterol level and his ongoing “smoking cessation efforts.”  White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs pointed to the campaign diet and too many desserts from the White House kitchen as likely triggers for the high cholesterol.

There should be no question on any reader’s mind that the job of president of the United States is inherently stressful. Mr. Obama himself recently explained, “Every day, I wake up thinking, ‘How can I give those folks who are out of work right now a job? How can I make sure that people who don’t have health care get health care? How can I make sure that I’m doing right by those young men and women who are in Afghanistan?'” Mr. Obama also said, “I would be lying if I said that those aren’t weighted questions that I carry around on my shoulders every day.”

So here we have a group of stress symptoms (gray hair, cholesterol level), some significant on-going stressors (joblessness in America, health care reform, Afghanistan) and two revealing attempts at self-medication (smoking and sugar intake). Are these sufficient for a long-distance diagnosis of a stress disorder?

The possible diagnoses are acute stress disorder, chronic stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or another anxiety-related disorder, such as generalized anxiety. We can exclude acute stress because its diagnosis would require Mr. Obama’s exposure to a traumatic event that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury. So far, none of these have been reported as having been experienced first-hand by the president. We can also probably exclude PTSD, which has the same requirements of having experienced in the first person an actual or threatened truly dramatic and life-threatening event.

So we are left with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or chronic stress. A diagnosis of GAD can be made when the individual exhibits excessive anxiety and worry, finds it difficult to control the worry, and shows three or more of the following symptoms: restlessness, fatigue, concentration problems, irritability, muscle tension, sleep disturbances. So far, none of these symptoms have caught the attention of the Obama watchers or have made it to the front page of the blogs. Is this because they are not there or because we are busy noticing hair color and counting calories? Be that as it may, perhaps Mr. Obama is not (publicly) suffering from GAD.

Bush-before-afterThis leaves us with chronic stress. Several US presidents, including the most recent one before Mr. Obama, Mr. George W. Bush, have shown visible signs of stress on the job. It may be fair to say that they have experienced such levels of stress, prolonged and severe in nature, that their bodies responded by a near-constant state of alert, with a continuous flow of cortisol and other excitatory hormones, i.e. the classic definition of chronic stress. Mr. Obama is no doubt experiencing his job as a near-constant flow of issues, problems, requests, crises, challenges, and decisions. Enough perhaps to qualify for elevated levels of stress that, even over the short time of his presidency, may qualify for the label of chronic stress.

So what about the hair?  Is gray hair a sign of stress?  And the pies, cheese burgers, and such…are they sure indication of dangerous stress levels?

On the hair graying question, there is some evidence of a link with stress. “There is evidence that local expression of stress hormones mediates the signals instructing melanocytes to deliver melanin to keratinocytes,” notes Jennifer Lin, a dermatologist who conducts molecular biology research at the Dana-Farber / Harvard Cancer Center in Boston. “Conceivably, if that signal is disrupted, melanin will not deliver pigment to your hair.” Others researchers suspect that going gray is “genetically outlined, but stress and lifestyle give you variation of plus or minus five to ten years.” Blonds often appear to go gray later in life because white strands easily hide in a sea of light hair, when in fact those who are likely to have the darkest hair (people of African and Asian ancestry) seem to retain their color longer. In Mr. Obama’s case, he seems to be counter-trending, at least with respect to his ethnicity.

What about food? A high-fat high-sugar diet may not come to mind when trying to find methods for losing weight and reducing stress. But that’s what a USF research team’s study has recently discovered. People crave foods higher in sugar and fat when stressed, says researcher David Diamond who led the study published by the University of South Florida’s research journal. “It’s a vicious cycle. People try to relieve their stress by eating more sugar-filled foods.”

Add to this an award-winning pastry chef who works at your home, the rank of commander in chief, a hard-to-kick nicotine habit, and a few other job perks and there you may have it, the presidential stress-relief and weight management program.

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