The Changing Face of Stress: Who Me? Worry?

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There is a new way of managing stress and it’s called “don’t worry, be happy!” Yes, I know the Bobby McFerrin song that hit #1 on the charts before the French Revolution, that is, way back in 1988. This is 2010, however, and it’s way more than just a popular song.

It is the new creed of the Why Worry Generation, as it has been aptly named, which is also known as Generation Y or simply Generation Me. It is composed of the young people who grew up in the boom-and-bust years, that have known Columbine, September 11, and the biggest recession since the Great Depression. They have seen their parents lose their jobs, their bank go bust, their family savings evaporate; many have had their homes foreclosed. They have also experienced the skyrocketing cost of school, saw gas seesaw up to almost $5 per gallon and back. They have seen Katrina, the big spill in the Gulf. They have lived through Desert Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan. Many have died or been wounded there or know someone who did.

And yet, they are optimistic. They are positive about the future. Despite the fact that there are no jobs available. That the graduating classes of ‘08, ‘09, and ‘10 have had an increasingly hard and frustrating time in finding any decent job, let alone a good paying one or one with career advancement opportunities. That their parents and anyone older than 40 is walking around with good reasons to be gloomy and depressed.

These young adults seem to exude positive self-regard, ooze self-esteem, and a resilience that older generations may dismiss as foolish and reckless. Their self-confidence seems unfazed by having to live at home instead of getting their own place, or even having to move back into their parents’ home after a brief stint on their own.

There is another explanation for this resilience in the face of a steady barrage of bad news. It may be the result of adjusting to high stress levels and, over time, building up tolerance for change and uncertainty. This is what is predicted for individuals who are able to accept and rationalize adversity and turn it into a learning experience, instead of being destroyed by it. It is the ability to use the stress reaction to produce an adequate response to challenging circumstances.

So unlike the Greatest Generation, the Millennials, and of course the Baby Boomers, this generation is making good use of stress, making the changes that are called for, and refusing to worry or to feel sorry for themselves. Way to go, guys!

Screening for Depression and Suicide Using Email

BaltoroGlacier For the first time, email has been used to screen college students for clinical depression at 4 major US universities, as a feasible and inexpensive way to detect the disorder. The findings were presented at the American Psychiatric Association 2010 Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Undergraduate and graduate students at 4 colleges were invited through email to complete a depression screening survey. Students who agreed to participate were linked to an online questionnaire to answer demographic and treatment history questions and asked to complete the Patient Health Questionnaire 9 (PHQ-9). A total of 631 students consented to take the survey. About one quarter of the students were identified as having clinical symptoms of depression. Of these, almost 13% reported having suicidal symptoms.

The #1 Reason Stress Is My Friend

TheStresshacker_142x160 Stress has been my friend for years. Not always a pleasant friend, and often an uncomfortable one—even downright painful, occasionally. Many times stress has come around with bad news, many times with good news, and always when something new, unexpected, or different was happening or about to happen.

Nowadays, stress and I know each other well but I must confess that when we first met I wasn’t very impressed. For a long time I considered the chances of having a good relationship with stress quite remote. In fact, I thought of it more as an enemy, and a dangerous one to boot. I know now that my bad attitude toward stress and my refusal to accept its friendship was simply because I did not know any better. Once I got to know stress, its function, its benefits, and the advantages that it had in store for me, our friendship became rock solid.

You may ask who would even think of calling stress a friend. I bet I know where this question is coming from: stress has a bad reputation. The reputation of something that needs to be reduced, eliminated, cured—in other words, a disease. And one can’t be friends with a disease, right? I agree, one can’t. For as much as I try to be kind and understanding to an illness, I can’t really say that it would be possible to be friends with it. So, what gives?

Well, you see, that’s really the point. Stress is not a disease. It is an alarm system. A sophisticated warning mechanism that alerts me to the fact that something or someone requires my attention. The ability that stress gives me to identify and become alarmed by threats and challenges in my environment is an essential element of survival and adaptation. This is true for me, for you and for all humans and animals. That is the #1 reason I am proud and grateful to call stress my friend. I don’t know what I would do without it.

Imagine what would happen if stress wasn’t around. If threats and challenges provoked no reaction whatsoever in me. A bus could be coming down the pike headed straight for me and I wouldn’t have an immediate instinctive reaction to it. I may be about to be attacked by road bandits, and I would placidly saunter along, oblivious to the danger. My body would continue to be calm, my muscles relaxed, my heart beating normally, my priorities elsewhere.

But, since stress is there for me, I become immediately mobilized against my attacker and I can make a quick, almost instantaneous decision to step aside, run away, attack or defend myself, with all my senses fully alerted, and my body primed and ready for activity. It takes stress only a fraction of a second to start waking all my systems up and to mobilize my resources.

Every time there is potential danger, be it financial, interpersonal, physical, psychological, or anything I think might be harmful to me, stress is there. And even when there is something wonderful and new that I might miss if I weren’t paying attention, stress is there. Stress is my friend, the one that helps me pay attention in all situations when something unexpected happens, or when something I expected does not happen. It is also there for me to give me the ability to deal with something new, when something is missing, when there is an imbalance, or when there is a physical threat to me or to the people and animals I care about.

Oh, and one more thing that stress does for me: the stress reaction acts as a safety system that automatically assigns the highest priority to a serious and sudden threat, that helps me sort quickly through what is important and urgent to me, and what is not.

Thank you, friend!

Is Love Apart As Good As Love Nearby?

ShipwreckBeach_EN-US2696310123 Being apart is not as satisfying as being together. Certainly true, common sense would say. Well, not so fast. New, more recent research suggests that long-distance relationships can be, and often are, at least as emotionally satisfying as geographically close ones.

The new research comes from Purdue University(i), where researchers studied attachment patterns of individuals in the United States and South Africa who for various reasons were in a committed (married or unmarried) long-distance relationship. The conclusions of the study are that, with a few caveats, love at a distance can be a well-functioning, if not ideal, committed relationship.

Earlier studies had identified severe distress, loneliness, emotional roller-coasters, and generally very problematic outcomes in the separation-temporary reunion-separation cycle of relationships where one or both individuals are pursuing a career goal in another geographic area. Anecdotal evidence abounds as to the heartaches and dissatisfaction of these arrangements, of the tearful goodbyes and too short reunions. The common assumption is therefore that all long-distance relationships are inherently stressful and more vulnerable to break-ups.

By studying attachment patterns between people in close relationships, Purdue researchers have identified the characteristics that make these relationships endure and flourish. Read more to see how they arrived at their conclusions and what they recommend to couples in these situations.

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eClass 4: Best and Worst Food For Stress

Italy_Tuscany2 How, when, and what we eat tells a lot about who we are. It also says a lot about how well we handle our stress reaction. Food can help or hurt our coping abilities and thus make a difference in how well we respond to stressors.

Food intake is one of the critical factors ensuring adequate growth and development in all species. Just ask my puppy dog where food ranks on his daily list of priorities! In particular, brain development is sensitive to specific nutrient intake such as proteins and fats, which are important for cell membrane formation and myelinization.

A surprising amount of the stress we may experience on a daily basis can be caused by the chemicals we consume in our food. By eating, drinking or inhaling certain substances we can put our bodies under elevated chemical stress. Similarly, if we are eating an unbalanced diet we may be stressing our bodies by depriving them of essential nutrients.

Eating too much of certain high-calorie foods for a long period is a leading cause of obesity. How much food is consumed as a stress reliever? Gaining too much weight puts our heart and lungs under stress, overloads our organs and reduces stamina. It may also significantly shorten our lives.

Stress reactions are a pervasive factor in everyday life that can critically affect our development and functioning. Severe and prolonged exposure to stressors can have a negative effect on our balance mechanisms.

Let’s look at some of the most important effects of food on our psychological state right after the jump.

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Learning From Stress: The Locus of Control

Dali_1954_PiramidesWhen it comes to handling stressors and managing the stress reaction, are you an internal or an external?

Our response to a stressor can be classified in many ways, but when it comes to our interpretation of its impact on our capabilities and resources we fall along a continuum from internal (“I feel I can handle this”) to external (“I can’t handle this by myself”) locus of control.

On one side of the continuum are individuals who feel capable of taking personal responsibility and are therefore inclined to believe that success or failure in handling the stressor can be found primarily within their own resources, i.e. their locus of control is internal. At the other end of the continuum are individuals who do not feel capable of assuming responsibility over the stressful situation and are therefore more inclined to believe that success or failure in handling the stressor hinges on luck, chance, or help from others; their locus of control is external. What are the implications of locus of control? Read more after the jump.

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How Do I Feel About It? Emotion As Information

oropa_sanct Emotion is information. Almost without exception, humans use their feelings to make judgments and decisions. Decisions are often made simply by asking ourselves, “How do I feel about it?” Most individuals do this feeling-based evaluation of significant aspects of their environment almost automatically. It is not infrequent that someone will rely almost entirely on emotion in making even very significant decisions.

Before discussing whether this is good or bad, it is undeniable that the information provided by emotions is about value—that is, about whether something or someone can be appraised in a positive or negative way.

Emotion as information can be illustrated as the means by which such positive or negative value is conveyed internally to ourselves, just in the same way as facial expressions of emotion convey the same type of information to others. Additionally, emotional appraisal is generally much more immediate, i.e. faster, than cognitive (reasoned) appraisal. In other words, we are capable of “feeling” positive or negative about something or someone much faster and earlier than we can “understand” or “evaluate cognitively” their real worth. This innate capability is well known to all of us as having a gut feeling, feeling it in one’s stomach, having a sixth sense, and many other such metaphors in every human language.

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12 Ways to Make Use of Stress

DSCN0319 Stress has a bad reputation it does not deserve. As I discussed in the posts, I React Therefore I Am and The Misunderstood Messenger, its function is primary to our well being and it has been a competitive advantage of the human race since the beginning.

Here are 12 ways to turn stress into an ally, rather than fear it as a disease.

  • Become better informed about the natural cycle of the stress reaction: from the alarm phase to the peak of arousal, and finally the resolution phase.
  • Consider the convincing evidence supporting the notion that we often experience benefits following stress and trauma. There are many names for these benefits, such as silver lining, flourishing, positive by-products, positive changes, positive meaning, posttraumatic growth, quantum change, self-renewal, stress-related growth, thriving, and transformational coping.
  • Notice that in many cases relationships are enhanced
    by stressful events, such as when we value friends and family more and feel more compassion and altruism toward others.
  • Reflect on the fact that stressful situations sharpen our view of ourselves in some way, such as when we learn to rely on our resources, our wisdom, and our strengths, and also a healthier
    acceptance of our inevitable human limitations.
  • Be aware that many successful individuals report that stress and adversity helped them change their approach to life, such as by

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Generalized Anxiety: The Logic of Unending Gloom

I am sure there is a reason why things keep going the wrong way. Once my grandmother told me that I looked like someone who would never be happy. I still remember her saying that, her tone of voice was so… matter of fact. All I have to do to believe her is to look at my relationships: it’s like looking at a trailer park after a tornado. (…) Oh my so-called career… let’s not even go there. (…) I had so many dreams when I was a kid. Where have they gone? I can’t even dream anymore. Heck, I can’t even sleep. (…) And my health! Every bone in my body screams bloody murder… I panic just thinking about going somewhere. (…) Why can’t I just be happy?

These statements (taken from a variety of similar cases) are representative of the way of thinking that is characteristic of individuals suffering from a stress disorder. They are so categorical–and, in the patient’s view, so logical–that anything anyone could say or do would appear to be just another futile attempt at fixing the irretrievably broken. The gloom can be so palpable and real that it falls over the therapy room like a cloak.

vanGogh_1889_StarryNight_MOMANY The apparent logic of these statements requires the experienced therapist to apply a judicious dosage of empathy and attunement while gently challenging their validity, in order to establish a positive therapeutic relationship.

Unfortunately, this type of personal narrative is not uncommon. In fact, most individuals who come in for help on issues of depression, anxiety, and stress disorders have a similar presentation. In some cases, the symptoms are focused on a specific stressor, but in many cases

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Aroma Therapy to Ease Combat Stress?

The U.S. military is experimenting with aroma therapy, acupuncture and other unorthodox methods to treat soldiers traumatized by combat experiences, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Saturday. He said the experiments showed promise.

Gates touted possible treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during a meeting with the wives of servicemen at Fort Riley, Kansas, when one woman asked him to explain why chiropractic and acupuncture therapies were not covered under her military health care plan.

"We have an experimental unit … treating soldiers with PTS (post-traumatic stress) and using a number of unorthodox approaches, including aroma therapy, acupuncture, things like that, that really are getting some serious results, and so maybe we can throw that into the hopper as well," Gates said. Pentagon Tries Aroma Therapy to Ease Combat Stress

Aroma therapy and acupuncture have been shown to have some influence on the symptoms of stress. However, their therapeutic effectiveness is a different matter.

One systematic review conducted by researchers at the School of Postgraduate Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Exeter located twelve clinical trials: six of them had no independent replication; six related to the relaxing effects of aromatherapy combined with massage. Another review conducted by the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Warren Alpert Medical School, Brown University in Providence located 18 studies meeting stringent empirical criteria.

The results of these studies suggest that while there is credible evidence that odors can affect mood, physiology and behavior, aromatherapy can at best have a mild, transient anxiety-reducing effect. [B7AGFR3T8K2S]

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eClass 3: Acute and Chronic Stress

Stress can affect us immediately (acute stress) and over time (chronic stress).

Acute (short-term) stress is the body’s immediate reaction to any situation that seems demanding or dangerous, as an instinctive reaction that goes beyond a normal state of alertness and wakefulness.

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Tension is often the first signal of acute stress. Tense muscles are tight and feel "hard" to the touch. A tense mind makes us feel jumpy, irritable, and unable to concentrate. This is usually a signal that something about a situation, a relationship, or a condition requires our attention.

Stress acts like the light on the dashboard that starts to glow amber and may turn to red. Addressing the contingency has the effect of exercising control over it, and may provide immediate comfort and prevent the long-term effects of stress.

Common symptoms of acute stress indicate a rapid arousal of the body in response to the perceived threat:

  • Rapid heartbeat (increased blood flow)
  • Headache (increased blood flow to the brain and/or pericranial muscular tension)
  • Stiff neck and/or tight shoulders (muscular tension)

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Stress and the Flow of Time

Time is too slow for those who wait, too swift for those who fear, too long for those who grieve, too short for those who rejoice, but for those who love, time is eternity.
Henry Van Dyke

The passage of time’s objective and subjective dimensions are probably one of the most difficult dichotomies to comprehend. How can time be a quantifiable, exact dimension and at the same time be so easily manipulated by our emotions?  Is it time that changes according to who perceives it, or is the perceiver who is somehow capable of modifying time’s allegedly immutable length?

tehachapi flowers Most of us frequently experience a slowing down or a speeding up of time. Time seems to slow down in times of boredom, but also in times when a significant stressor seems to burden us constantly with “no end in sight.” Time appears to “stand still” in situations of grave danger or great disaster.

There is also the widely reported but little studied notion that time speeds up as we age, whereby plenty of older men and women are frequently under the impression that the days and years of their lives are just “slipping away.” And who hasn’t heard a teenager complain that it takes “forever” to the time of graduation, to a driver’s license, to next summer, or event just to the end of the school week?

The Stress of Fast Time or Slow Time

The perception of time in these circumstances, when it is either felt as being too slow or too fast, is a stressor. Its consequences are visible in the harried, hurried, worried feeling of not having enough of it. Or they are seen in the bored, unmotivated, debilitating feeling of not knowing what to do with it. Google returns about 192 million results for the keywords time management. The widespread idea that “time is money,” originally attributed to Benjamin Franklin, has turned into a modus operandi on Wall Street, Silicon Valley and all other business-relevant addresses.

But there is a type of time perception that is actively sought by everyone and which often seems to elude us. It is a distorted sense of time, just like the ones I mentioned above, but unlike them it is a distortion that feels wonderful. This time perception is flow, also known as “the zone” or “the groove” or “on the ball.” Read more after the jump.

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Stress: The Misunderstood Messenger

Stress has a bad reputation. It is largely undeserved. Stress itself is not the problem. The stressor (of which stress reaction is the messenger) is the problem. Moreover, there is more than one kind of stress: the good stress that motivates and the unmanaged stress that damages.

Unmanaged stress is generally understood as a bad outcome, a mental disorder from which we suffer either in acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) form. However, we believe that all stress is bad and pathological because that’s what we are being told over and over.

Many times a stressor takes us by surprise. But many more times we can see it coming, we can expect it to happen, we can see the warning signs. Too often the warning signs are ignored or, worse, are turned off so that they won’t bother us anymore. Many choose to turn them off by

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Runaway Stress Attacks Financial Markets

High anxiety produced the equivalent of a panic attack in the world’s financial markets last Thursday. It was a day reminiscent of the high anxiety, high stress situation in the fall of 2008 when the markets lost almost half of their value in a few weeks.

On Thursday, from the Hang Seng to the Tadawul, from the DAX to Wall Street, fear gripped traders. On Wall Street, shares plunged by nearly 10% of their value and then regained it almost all back by closing time. Millions of dollars were lost and gained in minutes. Automatic halts on trading by computerized safeguards prevented a complete meltdown.

For at least “a discrete period” (i) of a few hours on Thursday, there was “a sudden onset of intense apprehension, fearfulness, or terror, often associated with feelings of impending doom.” (ii)

Among individual traders, “symptoms such as shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain or discomfort, choking or smothering sensations, and fear of ‘going crazy’ or losing control” (iii) appeared and disappeared throughout the day.

This appeared to be the type of panic attack that was “situationally bound (cued)… occurring on exposure to or in anticipation of the situational cue or trigger.” (iv) The situational cue on Thursday was a real or perceived threat to the world economy by the crisis of confidence in Greece’s ability to meet the obligations of its national debt.

When the panic attack was over on Friday, financial analysts and the rest of us were left to wonder if” “the increased global anxiety threatens to slow the recovery in the United States, where job growth has finally picked up after the deepest recession since the Great Depression.” And if “it could also inhibit consumer spending as stock portfolios shrink and loans are harder to come by.”

For anxiety, stress and panic attacks to be linked to allegedly rational financial evaluations and transactions is nothing new.

The notorious tug of war between quantitative economists and those who believe that financial decisions are to a large extent irrational, continues unabated.

An April 2010 NOVA special on PBS, Mind Over Money asked a very straightforward question: Can markets be rational when humans aren’t?

Thursday’s events would seem to indicate, once again, that mathematically-bound, high-intellect frontal lobe activities such as financial markets are vulnerable to sudden irrationality.

Just like the rest of us.

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Talk Therapy Said To Relieve IBS Symptoms

Nearly 30% of patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) reported considerable relief after 4 weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and the vast majority sustained these improvements for 3 months, according to a study published in the April issue of Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. Medscape Psychiatry & Mental Health – May 5, 2010

Talking about IBS with a cognitive-behavioral therapist in a therapy setting can bring symptom relief, i.e. less pain and discomfort, in as little as four weeks. Another bit of evidence that IBS is connected to one’s way of thinking, since it can be relieved by a psychotherapy that focuses of modifying thoughts and beliefs to induce change in behavior.