Hunger, Food Insecurity or Stress?

Is hunger an “alarming” and “dramatic” problem in the United States today? Widespread famine is the impression one might get from headlines in the New York Times (“Hunger in the US at a 14-year high”), USA Today (“1 in 6 went hungry in America in 2008”), and The Washington Post (“America’s economic pain brings hunger pangs”).  In fact, a closer reading indicates not so much a decrease in food availability (which is reported to be at or near historic highs), as much as a decrease in food security. The reason for the insecurity (“Will I have enough food for me and my family?”) has been linked to the current and persistent economic downturn.

maslows-hierarchy-of-needs1Since time immemorial food insecurity has been and continues to be one of the most important stressors of the human race. The innate and genetically programmed need to eat enough food is the primary driving force of human activity. Food is at the basis of the pyramid of needs (Maslow,1943), along with water, warmth, clothing, shelter and rest. It supersedes all other needs, including safety, relationships, self-esteem, and creativity. Which means that, for food, humans will take the greatest risks, go to war with each other, stoop to begging and stealing, and revert into pure hunters and scavengers. Such is the power of the food insecurity drive.

Too Little or Too Much

Depending on type and duration, stress can either increase or decrease food intake. Mental disorders such as depression and anorexia nervosa trigger changes in food intake that are activated by the stress response. The psychological alteration in perceived body image is a factor not only in anorexia but also in obesity; both conditions are associated with a variety of psychological stressors, primarily interpersonal in nature.

When stressed, 70% of individuals experience mild to severe anorexia, whereas 30% tend to overeat. For stressed overeaters, chewing appears to be as important as the actual type, quality or quantity or food. In other words, chewing is reported to be the stress response, rather than the food itself. When the stressor is boredom, overeating appears to be the most common behavior.

Well, I think probably the main reason people overeat is stress.
–Jenny Craig

Here’s a brief technical explanation of how stress influences the brain’s perceptions and contributes to the formation of the food insecurity we often mistake for real hunger.

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Stress Reduction Step-by-Step

Progressive relaxation, thought stopping and worry control are often easy to understand but not so easy to do in the right way. These, and a dozen other stress reduction and relaxation techniques are taught step-by-step by Dr. Martha Davis in The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook (New Harbinger Self-Help Workbook), now in its 6th edition. The other techniques included in this very helpful book are breathing, meditation, self-hypnosis, visualization, refuting irrational ideas, coping skills, exercise, nutrition, time management, and assertiveness; there are also bonus chapters on job stress management and quick relaxers.

A book worth having and definitely worth reading and practicing. It gets this week’s Stresshacker Recommended badge.

[amtap book:isbn=1572245492]

S.M.A.R.T. Goal Setting Is Clever

Canaletto at Stresshacker.com If there is one thing that entrepreneurs and managers have in common, it is that they usually have a high level of awareness that life is made of decisions. Goal setting, implementation, choice of objectives is something of a second nature in professional life. But did you know that decision-making is an inherently stressful activity?

Decisions of some significance nearly always produce a measure of stress. Some individuals seem to have the easiest time making decisions, and their stress may come from impulsive choices that turn out to be ill-considered. Others have the hardest time coming up with a choice, and they linger endlessly in the stress of indecision. There is virtually a different decision-making process for each human being, as so many subjective factors can enter into it. Often, stress is heightened by not having a clear goal, having conflicting objectives, or lacking necessary information.

Of the many tasks involved in decision-making, setting meaningful objectives is perhaps the most important. The S.M.A.R.T. way is the best way to set objectives in stress management. 

  • S is for specific, concrete objectives. Instead of, “I want to work on my stress,” say, “I’m going to set aside 1 hour every Sunday evening, to plan my weekly stress-reduction activities.”
  • M is for measurable objectives. Instead of, “I want to exercise more,” say, “I’m going to schedule 1 hour of {insert a specific exercise activity} every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 6:30pm.”
  • A is for actionable objectives. Instead of, “I want to be a calmer person,” say, “I am going to learn and practice {insert specific anger management techniques} that I can apply to my individual situation.”
  • R is for realistic objectives. Instead of, “I want to be as relaxed in my life as the Dalai Lama," say, "I want to reduce my stress to a healthier level by learning more about the causes and manifestations of stress."
  • T is for time-bound objectives. Instead of, “I want to lose some weight,” say, “I want to shed 12 pounds by the end of October.”

These are just some examples from different areas of stress management. Perhaps one or more apply to a specific situation in your life. If so, take this opportunity to set as your first SMART objective to work on your personal stress management program. How about, for example, a health objective? There are many ways to be healthier: lose weight, stop smoking, reduce alcohol intake, exercise on a bi-weekly schedule, forgo unhealthy foods like chips, sodas or candy bars, and many more. Formulate your health objective the SMART way. Write your objective on a piece of paper and put it in a place where you see it every day, as for example on your bathroom mirror or the steering wheel of your car. It’s the SMART thing to do!

Is Stress Entertainment?

Avatar at Stresshacker.com The rep is that stress is to be avoided. The reality is otherwise. Stress is avidly watched, read, and heard because, contrary to what we think we believe about it, stress is entertaining. Why?

The truth is, stress sells—in movies, books, quiz shows, talent shows, and crime scene dramas. Not always and not for everyone, to be sure, but in vast numbers of book plots, screenplays, TV storylines, in radio plays, and theater plays, stress reigns supreme.

The surface reason is that stressful situations, when they are happening to someone else as in most forms of entertainment, hold our attention. Peaceful, restful, and relaxing situations, when we watch them happening to someone else, generally do not. There is not much fun in reading about someone having a really quiet day when nothing much is happening, but isn’t it great to watch a-thrill-every-second action on the big screen? Indeed, there is a deeper, genetically programmed reason why stress can be fun.

What’s the Fun in Stress?

To understand what’s happening, we must step back and consider the mechanics of stress. When we perceive a threat (a risk, a danger, a challenge), our mind is instantly alerted by the stress reaction that we experience in the body. Most often, this consists of increased heart beat, elevated blood pressure, muscle tension, and a release of excitatory hormones into the blood stream (cortisol, epinephrine, adrenaline), plus a host of other biological changes that very quickly get us ready for action. Now, what is interesting here is that, in addition to mobilizing the body, the excitatory hormones also generate a certain amount of pleasurable sensations. Is this nature’s little joke, or what?

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Stresshacker Not Found. Click To Continue.

Riccio_SH Sometime between midnight and 5 am on Thursday, the computer server that “dishes up” Stresshacker went down. And stayed down. Eventually, during the day, it died. The result was the disappearance of Stresshacker.com from the Internet. Service was not restored until late on Thursday evening, and not fully (with a new server) until this Friday afternoon, for a total down time of about 12 hours.

First, my apologies to the visitors who tried to access Stresshacker.com and were met with a screen that proclaimed its disappearance. We have taken the necessary steps and hopefully this type of incident will not happen again.

Second, this was an object lesson on the management of stress and anxiety. My reaction cycled through the stages, from denial (this can’t be happening), to anger (this shouldn’t be), to bargaining (maybe I can get them to fix it fast), to despair (we are down forever!), and finally to acceptance (we can use the down time to research and choose a better solution). The stress process took a couple of hours, while the repairs to the server took six times as long.

The lesson for me: experience the stress fully (I had a darn good reason), let the anxiety ebb and flow, and then get to work to address the real culprit: better Internet service.

The 5-point, 45-second Stress Management Training Program

Cottingham at Stresshacker.com

Reduced to its most essential and most consequential points, here’s the absolute beginners stress management training course:

1. When we perceive a physical or emotional stressor, our body reacts immediately by producing the natural stress response, which is a vital survival mechanism. After the threat passes, the body returns to its normal state.
2. In contrast, the chronic stress response continues beyond the immediate threat, therefore exposing us to emotional and physical health risks.
3. Most frequently, it is psychological (rather than physical) stressors that activate the stress response long enough to produce health consequences.
4. The power of emotion-based psychological states to disrupt normal stress arousal and then return to normal means that our thoughts and emotions have the power to make us sick. Effective cognitive, emotional and behavioral management of stress is therefore critical to our health.
5. Intentional management of stressful thoughts and emotions decreases the risk of prolonged activation of the stress response and increases the effectiveness of behavioral responses to stressors.

My even shorter summary: practice safe stress.

Stress and Breast Cancer

Chenonceau Castle at Stresshacker.com Learning how to better cope with stress had a significant positive impact on the lifespan and quality of life of a group of women with recurrent breast cancer. Researchers at Ohio State University’s department of psychology reported the results in the latest issue of Clinical Cancer Research Journal, published by the American Association for Cancer Research.

"Patients [who learned how to reduce stress] evidenced significant emotional improvement and more favorable immune responses in the year following recurrence diagnosis. In contrast, stress remained unabated and immunity significantly declined in the assessment-only group," said Dr. Barbara L. Andersen, principal researcher at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.

Analysis of the data of the 11-year-long study showed that of 227 women in the study group, the women who had received stress management training had a 59 per cent lower risk of dying of breast cancer.

This excellent news, reported by Medical News Today, is further confirmation that treating the symptoms of the stress reaction through cognitive (psychoeducational) and behavioral interventions can have a powerful effect on health. It is especially beneficial to learn how to directly manage the stressor that is causing the reaction, how to reduce its impact by a combination of stress-reducing techniques of relaxation, appropriate nutrition, adequate sleep, and the affirmation of positive statements about one’s ability to cope and overcome the challenge.

Faith And Stress: The Connection

My view is that "bad" stress is handled through scripture, prayer, and faith. That is not naïve but a way to perceive the circumstances of life which would invade our peace and joy. –Doyle Kee

Hurricane at Stresshacker.com The belief in the existence of a supernatural being who has
a plan for each human being, and the opportunity to connect with others who share the same belief, can be powerful relievers of the stress of life. The psychological appeal of faith is beyond dispute: there are over 100,000 registered religions in the United States alone, and membership is constantly on the rise. An even greater number of people accept a form of personal spirituality which includes the belief in a higher being, without subscribing to any one specific movement.

Religious belief and affiliation appear to rise significantly in times of severe stress. Some of history’s most prominent, and some of the most unusual and charismatic, religious movements have arisen in times of great political, economic and societal turmoil. In times of war, widespread famine, poverty and natural disasters, and impending death and illness nearly all religious groups have seen and continue to see their appeal grow.

Sigmund Freud, in his book on The Future of an Illusion admitted, without accepting it, that faith in God could reduce psychological stress. Carl Marx famously stated, “religion is the opiate of the masses” in the introduction of his book Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. And we can certainly consider the meaning attached to faith by the 9/11 suicide bombers who went to their death (and took many with them) as a testament to the power of their religious fervor.

The Connection Between Faith and Stress

Research has shown that faith in a supernatural being, with all its corollaries and attributes, appears to be particularly effective in relieving certain specific psychological stressors. Here are the most important ones:

  • Psychological and physical escape from stress: religious organizations offer physical as well as spiritual shelters where food, clothing, and healthcare are available, along with social support, structure, and spiritual guidance.
  • Consolation, devaluation of and disassociation from the illusory trappings of the material world, and the ephemeral appeal of beauty, money, success.
  • Appealing models of resilience and positive outcomes in the face of life-threatening stressors.
  • Cognitive and dialectical techniques that are useful in coping with stressors, such as individual prayers, group rituals and collective petitions. Nearly all religious movements provide ways of giving voice to individual and collective distress, including the fast-growing Internet-based churches.
  • Explaining the inexplicable: in a world that seems ruled by chaos and administered by randomness, faith in a superiorly organized universe is an appealing provider of stability. By prayer, penance, code, dietary laws, rituals, or positive thinking, faith-based movements promote a sense of personal control.
  • A meaning to life and to life’s end. Faith can promote a hopeful and optimistic outlook with its emphasis on a more peaceful (and stress-free) existence and its promise of life after death.
  • A refuge from aloneness and abandonment. The profoundly comforting sense of belonging to a community of mutual love and support, and the incomparable feeling of being loved unconditionally by someone who epitomizes love and trust are perhaps the most appealing attributes of faith.

As an intensely personal experience, faith remains beyond the investigation by scientific means. In psychological terms, faith can positively influence us in cognitive and emotional terms, in the way we come to perceive ourselves, our world, and our future. When embraced sincerely and whole-heartedly, it can become an important protective factor against the effects of stress in our lives.

7 Natural Ways to Heal Stress

Stresshacker Recommends In my recent post I discussed how, “With so many (stress management programs) to choose from, it has become just about impossible to review them in depth and determine which stress management programs actually help people, in what ways, and how well.” Part of the answer may come from this week’s Stresshacker Recommended book selection. French physician, neuroscientist and author David Servan-Schreiber who is a clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, a lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine of Lyon University, and the co-founder and then director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center has written The Instinct to Heal: Curing Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy, published by Rodale Press.

41gRvdz0izL._SL160_ The seven natural treatment approaches described in this book make use of the mind and the brain’s own healing mechanisms for recovering from depression, anxiety, and stress. Dr. Servan-Schreiber has selected only those stress management methods that have received enough scientific attention to make him comfortable in using them with patients and in recommending them to his colleagues.

The methods presented are: eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (see Stresshacker’s post on EMDR), heart rate coherence training, synchronization of chronobiological rhythms with artificial dawn (which should replace the alarm clock), acupuncture, nutrition, exercise, emotional communication, and cultivating your connection to something larger than yourself.

Servan-Schreiber, D. (2004). The Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety and Stress Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy. ISBN-10: 1594861587 ASIN: B000GYI1RO

iPhone, iPad, iBrain: A Multitasker Paradise?

Multitasking at Stresshacker.com Here’s a (very) short history of information explosion: oral poetry; carved tablets; papyrus; illuminated manuscripts; printing press; radio; television; computer; iPhone; iPad. At each turn, the volume and quality of available information grew, first geometrically, then exponentially. Availability has now far exceeded the capacity, and some say the need, of the human brain to receive, decode, and make use of the data. Volume has also created an additional stressor that was unknown until the latter part of the 20th century: information overload.

Today more than ever, we are exposed to a far larger volume of sensory input than our senses and brain can process. Billions of individual bits of information compete for our attention, requiring us to rapidly determine which needs to be processed, remembered, or used for action. Information can be just data (it’s now 7:15pm) but it can also carry an emotional value (it’s later than I thought!). Emotion-laden stimuli have a special advantage in the competition for our limited attention resources because the correct evaluation of an emotional stimulus may be critical in determining whether it represents a threat (oh no, I’ll miss the start of the game!) or a reward (good, I wont’ have to sit through the previews). See this post on the value of emotion as information.

In spite of the enormous amount of valuable and potentially interesting information that can be ours just for the asking (or the thumbing), more than 99% will not be accessed, processed or remembered. The greater part of the remaining 1% that makes it to our eyes and ears will be discarded by the brain as irrelevant and unimportant. So we are left with an almost insignificant sliver of information that manages to be retained and used in some way. Pity, one might say. Thank goodness, says I.

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Stressful Age: Good News/Bad News For Boomers

Tiepolo at Stresshacker.com First the good news. A study based on the 2008 Gallup poll of 340,000 Americans has identified 50 as the age when people begin to feel better about themselves. Prior to that age, people generally feel progressively worse from age 18. The study was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Following the sharp reversal at about age 50, most people report better self-satisfaction at increasing levels up to age 85.

Now for the bad news. According to the latest figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among people age 45-54 years has increased at a surprising pace since 2006. Typically, individuals aged ≥80 years have had the highest rates of suicide in the United States. Since 2006, however, rates of suicide among persons aged 45 to 54 years in the United States have been the highest. The majority of suicides in this age group were among white, non-Hispanic males.

The CDC speculates that problems related to mental health (depression), job loss, financial reversal (foreclosure, loss of investment value), or relationships (divorce, bereavement) might be contributing to the rising rates of suicide in this age group. Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs was a frequent precipitant or “facilitating” factor for the suicide.

Brothers, fathers, friends in this age group who may be feeling overwhelmed and have had a recent significant stressor may be at risk. Suicide crisis hotlines (in the United States: 1-800-784-2433 or 1-800-273-8255) are available as a first line of defense. Among the best protective factors is the availability of support from immediate family and close friends.

Why Can’t I Just Fall Asleep!

Aaah, to sleep. Peacefully. Like a baby, a puppy, a kitty… Is that possible anymore? I haven’t slept well in so long. Every night is a struggle. I futz and futz and go to bed later and later—it doesn’t do the trick. Tell me doc, what do I gotta do?

Villefrance at Stresshacker.com Sleep deprivation is literally a form of torture, and a very effective one at that. You don’t have to be a fiendish Capulet spy to find out how true that can be. US statistics from the Department of Transportation estimate that 20% of drivers doze off regularly at the wheel, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates conservatively that, during an average year, “drowsy driving” causes 100,000 automobile wrecks, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities. These staggering stats are supplemented by data from the US military, children studies, surveys of truck drivers, shift workers, couples, medical students—all pointing to one simple fact: we can’t sleep. Let’s see what is happening, why, and look at some possible remedies.

What’s Happening to Sleep?

Sleep is under attack from many sources. First and foremost, especially in the westerly and northerly parts of the planet, our schedules simply allow much less time for sleep. While this may seem like a no-brainer and suggest that there is a simple remedy (just allocate more time to sleep!), the problem of sleep scheduling is actually very complex and with no easy solution. The reason for this is below the surface and can be uncovered only by identifying that our fundamental belief about sleep has changed. To put it simply, many of us no longer believe in the necessity of sleep, while continuing to proclaim its virtues and benefits, at least out loud. Secretly, don’t we wish we could simply do away with sleep altogether?

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Top 7 Reasons Stress Management Programs May Not Work

Google Search at Stresshacker.com There are thousands of stress management books, CDs, audio books, treatments, therapies, and remedies. With so many to choose from, it has become just about impossible to review them in depth and determine which stress management programs actually help people, in what ways, and how well. In this post, I will review the types of stress management programs that are available and identify some of the most frequent reasons that may keep them from working.

What Are the Choices in Stress Management Programs?

Biological: “Stress is a biochemical imbalance in the body and/or the brain.” Normal biochemical balance is restored through medication, exercise, dietary, and lifestyle changes.
Psychoanalysis: “Stress is real or perceived loss which causes anger that is direct toward the self.” Insight into inner conflict and release of emotion are triggered via intensive and sometimes extended psychoanalytical therapy.
Behavioral – Focus is on emotion: “Stress is anxiety-modified behavior.” Anxiety is reduced by desensitization to thoughts, events, relationships that cause anxiety.
Behavioral – Focus is on behavior: “Stress comes from problems with the reward-punishment processes.” Behavior is modified through skills training in managing reward and punishment.
Behavioral – Focus is on self-control: “Stress comes from problems with the reward-punishment processes.” Increased self-control over reward and punishment is achieved through skills training in self-monitoring, -evaluation and –reinforcement.
Cognitive-Behavioral: “Stress is caused by distorted information, negative thoughts, and negative beliefs.” Better information, positive thoughts and beliefs, and behavioral change are promoted through skills training in reasoning, decision-making, self-monitoring, restructuring.

Many of these programs can work very well at reducing stress except… when they don’t work. Let’s look at some of the reasons that are most frequently cited when users complain that the stress management program of their choice did not work.

Top 7 Reasons Stress Management Programs May Not Work

  1. One Size Does Not Fit All: As opposed to individually tailored treatment programs, many stress management courses and programs are created for “people in general” without customization for culture, gender, age, health status and other significant factors.
  2. The Shotgun Approach: Most programs target generic stressors, i.e. the most common and universal sources of stress. The theory is that stress can be reduced systemically, targeting the symptoms without addressing their specific causes.
  3. When Stress Makes Sense: Effectiveness is limited in people whose stress results from realistic and valid concerns about stressors that must be resolved, reduced or eliminated for the stress symptoms to go away.
  4. “My Situation Is Different”: A program may fail to produce results when users cannot relate its prescriptions to their specific area of concern, either because the program is too short on specifics or too broad in scope.
  5. The Program Fails to Stimulate Lasting Change: To be effective, any stress management program must motivate the individual to view situations and challenges in a new way, and to apply new approaches and solutions. Often there is a return to the old ways of appraising and behaving after a superficial and temporary change.
  6. Scratching the Surface: Deep-seated stressful patterns are often caused by troubles that are caused by conflicts or personal challenges that are below the surface. Relaxing away the symptoms may leave the underlying difficulties untouched. Stress may go away, then return after a relatively short time.
  7. A Sound Mind in a Sound Body? Many exercise, sleep, breathing, aromatherapy and other biologically-based management programs urge the cultivation of certain aspects of physical fitness, on the assumption that if one feels well physically, the stresses of living and working will be less troublesome. Unless these programs also address the thoughts and emotions behind the stress-provoking patterns, however, it is possible to become more physically fit while remaining vulnerable to stress.

The bottom line of stress management programs? The programs that offer a better chance to work are the ones that do so by stimulating new ways of evaluating situations and relationships that cause distress and of coping with them in ways that are more effective and long-lasting. Any program that motivates these cognitive and emotional changes can be helpful in principle, because it will be more likely to cause lasting behavioral changes.

The 8 Best Defenses Against Stress and Those to Avoid

Earth at Stresshacker.com When we become aware of a stressor, the rising level of anxiety triggers an automatic psychological process of self-protection. This automatic defense mechanism often results in an immediate reduction of anxiety and therefore is perceived as “working” well. However, we may not be fully aware of what these defenses are and how they operate. There are 7 levels and as many as 31 different types of defense against stress, and we have a choice in selecting the ones that are most appropriate to the circumstances. And, of course, they are all available immediately and free to use.

Selecting the best defense gives us a better approach to handling the stressor and its consequences. As we make adjustments to our response, we can choose a different defense at a higher level and see how much or how little of it we need to protect ourselves against the discomfort of anxiety. We may also use more than one defense mechanism at one time. Let’s get to know what they are after the jump.

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