Stress and Memory: An Update

Salvador Dali Persistence of Memory at Stresshacker.comStress can interfere with the functioning of memory by either augmenting the impact and persistence of the recollection of an event, or by diminishing both. A recent article by Schwabe et al. (2012) summarizes and updates the most recent findings on the effects of stress on memory. Their research concludes that the timing of the exposure to the stressor is crucial in determining whether memory is improved or impaired. Timing may explain why there are stressful situations in which we are unable to retrieve critical information that we have learned prior to the stressor, e.g. an important phone number or address. In contrast, experiencing stress at the same time as we participate in certain embarrassing, shameful, or frightening events can cause a dramatic enhancement of memory formation.

Schwabe and colleagues examine and attempt to integrate two models of how stress may alter memory processes, the “vertical” model (the mechanisms of stress on memory) and the “horizontal” model (the changes in stress effects on memory over time.)

The vertical perspective implicates principally the action of glucocorticoids (GC) and noradrenaline on the basolateral amygdala. In a typical stress reaction, the hypothalamus activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in response to input from several other brain regions and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Through the portal blood system, corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) and vasopressin flood the pituitary gland, which trigger its secretion of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). In response to ACTH release from the pituitary, the adrenal glands secrete glucocorticoids (GCs), of which cortisol is the principal component. GCs, which are lipophilic (fat-loving) steroid hormones, enter the brain relatively easily and can exert their excitatory effect in multiple regions throughout the brain. These effects are often mediated through the binding to the two receptors for the hormone: the mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) and the glucocorticoid receptor (GR). These two receptors differ in their affinity for cortisol (with the MR having a much higher affinity) and also in their localization in the brain. In addition, GCs can exert nongenomic effects (occurring rapidly and acutely) by influencing ion channels or neurotransmitter receptors at the membrane level. It is important to note that CRH, vasopressin, and ACTH can, on their own, influence cognition. When released in concurrence with a stressor, they can have an almost instantaneous effect on memory processes.

The horizontal perspective suggests that the memory of an event or cognition is enhanced when new information is acquired during the stressful situation, whereas the memory process is impaired for information that was acquired prior to or after the stressful situation. In these situations, the flood of GCs acutely enhances memory consolidation of emotional arousing material, while significantly impairing memory retrieval. At the moment of greatest stress, the memory of a significantly stressful event is instantaneously etched into the memory banks in vivid and abundant detail. The recollection of a sometimes important and well-known piece of information is inhibited. It is as if the whole of our attention is absorbed, or mobilized, toward the assessment of the threat presented by the stressor and in the formulation of a reaction to it. The excitatory hormones cursing through the blood system rapidly arouse the nervous, cardio-circulatory, respiratory, and endocrine system. There is no time or resource available for other activities that are not related to the defense of the organism against the perceived (or real) threat of the stressor. Included in these “secondary” activities that are postponed as non-critical is memory retrieval of old information.

Other important findings highlighted in this article are the effects of stress on the striatum, a brain structure that was originally associated with motor control but that is now receiving increased attention as one of the loci of mnemonic function. Secondly, memory is affected by stress not only in terms of its quantity, but also its quality. Lastly, the authors cite important research conducted in the last decade which points to the effects of maternal stress during pregnancy or early childhood stress as harbingers of an individual’s impaired performance as an adult in high-stress environments.

The article concludes with several important questions, which provide an indication of the limits of current research in explaining important aspects of memory formation. For example, it remains difficult to understand how the same neurochemicals can exert opposite effects on the same brain structures, or how individuals in similar situations exhibit such differing recollections of the same event, and other similarly unexplored mysteries. These limitations do not detract from the thoroughness and relevance of this article.

The Seasonal Stress Buster

Oh, for the good old days when people would stop Christmas shopping when they ran out of money. –Author Unknown

I’m not sure where this year has gone, but all of a sudden Christmas is here. With so much going on at this time of year it’s quite common to feel stressed and rushed off our feet. If you’re juggling a million different things, here’s a brilliant time management technique which might help.

I wish I could say that I thought of this technique myself, but must give credit to Time Management guru Mark Forster. According to Mark, we work much more effectively when we do things in short, concentrated bursts. This is definitely true for me. If I sit down at my computer to check emails I’m very likely to still be there an hour later. But if I know I’ve only got 15 minutes to do the task I’ll be considerably more productive.

So, using this principle, if you’ve got several jobs to do, write them down and assign each one a time limit (from 5 – 30 minutes). Set a kitchen timer, start the first task and when the timer goes you must stop and go onto the next one. Again set the timer for the allotted time, work on the task until the timer goes off and move on to the next. Don’t worry if the task isn’t finished; you can go back to the beginning once you’ve worked your way through the list.

This is the best time management technique I know and it works equally well when you have a big chunky job to do. Get stuck into the job for half an hour, have a break/do something else for ten minutes, then go back to it.

At this time of year, with so many demands on our time, this technique will help you to get everything done in the shortest time — leaving you more time to enjoy the seasonal activities.

2012 has been an unusually challenging year for many of us and so as it draws to a close I wish you a healthy and Happy Christmas and all good things in the New Year.

Annabel Sutton
ICF Professional Certified Coach
Author of 52 Ways to Transform Your Life

Connect with Annabel on LinkedIn: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/annabelsutton. Book a FREE Coaching Consultation with Annabel. Find out more about Life Coaching.

Sleep More, Stress Less, Live Longer

iStock_000007980637XSmall People who are sleeping less than six hours a night are at risk for more cardiovascular events, more likely to develop diabetes, and more likely to die sooner, according to a recent study. People who sleep at least seven hours per night have better immune systems, less stress and lower body weight.

Sleep deprivation can be dangerous not only to one’s health but also to that of others around us. 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, surveys of truck drivers, shift workers, couples, medical students. All pointing to one simple fact: if we can’t sleep, sooner or later the body will react negatively, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Physical Threats to Sleep

TIME

Sleep time is under attack from many sources. First and foremost, our work and leisure schedules allow too little 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 appears to be more complex and somewhat intractable. The reason for this may be below the surface and may be due to a change in how we perceive sleep. While we continue to proclaim its virtues and benefits, at least out loud, aren’t many of us secretly wishing that we could simply do away with sleep altogether?

LIFESTYLE

Many people have a more complex lifestyle that demand an ever finer slicing of time slots. Time is a finite resource that can be neither reduced nor expanded, which forces a setting of priorities. And here is the heart of another problem: for many people sleep is no longer a priority. In fact, it is often considered a time waster that can keep us from other, more important activities.

ENVIRONMENT

Another potential problem is that sleep is not as undisturbed as it once was, in environmental terms. There is the interference of noise, either unwanted or induced (as in keeping music, TV or noise-makers on to “help us fall asleep”). There is the interference of artificial light, or rather too much of it, which we have grown so fond of and subconsciously seek. There is the interference of artificially controlled air, which may be either too dry or too humid or too hot and all variables in between. The A/C or fan or heater is on, adding to noise. One just can’t win the environmental battle in the bedroom!

CHEMICALS

What we eat, drink, smoke, snort, inject, wear, rub or apply can interfere with sleep. Medications, self-care products and nutritional practices that are designed to address specific issues may be very effective, but can cause side effects that have a negative impact on our ability to sleep. These modern chemical helpers may be (or perceived to be) necessary to fix a specific issue, and thus take priority over side effects that may include a negative impact on sleep.

Psychological Threats to Sleep

Individual situations vary greatly, but the following are probably perceived by most sleep-deprived individuals.

STRESSORS

Our own individual and habitual way of reacting to stressors large and small may have a significant impact on sleep. By suppressing a necessary release of emotion in the face of a stressor, we may temporarily “bury” feelings, thoughts, and impressions that find a way of resurfacing later, just when we are trying to relax and fall asleep.

INADEQUATE COPING

Our inability to cope with significant stressors in a timely and effective way may impact our ability to sleep. Not all stressors can be taken care of, i.e. eliminated, in a swift and painless way. Many do linger on, while we are looking for the right solution. Many stressors can be reduced in intensity or frequency. Others can be tolerated or ignored, after a suitable period of adjustment. Some stressors are of such magnitude and impact that we can only resolve them by removing ourselves from their influence, i.e. by moving away. Whatever the case may be, our coping response to stressors is multidimensional along time, frequency, and severity scales, and sleep deprivation is often a byproduct of the coping process.

ALLOSTATIC LOAD

Our stress level may rise and remain at high levels throughout the day, including the time when we’d need it to be lower so that we can fall asleep. This phenomenon is called our individual allostatic load. Allostatic load is the piling up of stress reaction upon stress reaction, without resolution, and without a return to normal arousal levels. Over time, this situation has the effect of permanently raising the set point of our stress level, whereby it is very difficult if not impossible to turn it down at will when we are trying to relax and fall asleep.

The Path to Better and Longer Sleep

There are so many sleep aids available nowadays, it’s a wonder we can even stay awake!  Fact is, most of them don’t work. The ones that do work do so by simply knocking us unconscious via powerful chemical agents. Is that real sleep? Many people report that it does not seem to refresh and restore, and chemically-induced relaxation simply bypasses the issues and turns the switch off. When we reawaken, these issues return and require another dose to be shut off again. This cycle repeats and repeats. Is that the way to fix this and get some rest?

The fix must start with identifying the stressors that keeps us from falling or staying asleep. Each night when you are trying to go to sleep, make a list of the thought-items that are swirling around in your mind. Do so for 7 nights. On the 8th day, look at the 7 lists, group thought-items together into issues. Now, you know within a good approximation what issues are keeping you awake.

Next, address the stressors so that they will no longer keep you from sleeping. Look at your issues and group them into three categories: the ones you can resolve, the ones you need to adapt to, and the ones you can ignore. Call upon your problem-solving skills and address the issues that can be resolved during the day. When you get to bed, intentionally stop trying to solve problems. Give yourself a break until the next day.

What about the issues I can’t resolve?  Here’s a radically different piece of advice: don’t even try to resolve them now. Accept that they cannot be resolved at 10pm or 2am. And, even more importantly, accept the idea that working on these issues will make your sleep more difficult and that it’s an exercise in futility. Instead of becoming more and more frustrated and agitated because you can’t relax, choose not to acknowledge your situation and don’t fight its impact. This may be the time to read a good book, go get a cup of herbal tea, listen to the crickets, make your list, jot down a few ideas about the screenplay, instead of tossing and turning and trying in vain to go to sleep.

Worst Stress Relievers: Pain Medication

Who is to say for sure how much pain I have right now, I had yesterday morning, or will have this afternoon?   Only I can know for sure the pain I am feeling—and I can lie, to myself and to others.  Herein lies the greatest challenge of addiction to pain medication. There is no objective measuring tool for pain. The best we can do is to ask the person to rate his or her own pain on a scale of 1 to 10, with all the accuracy that can be expected from such a subjective assessment, which isn’t very much because pain can always feel more intense than it actually is, physically or sometimes just psychologically.

The sad result of the greater availability of pain medication, its greater potency, the beneficial effects felt by the individual by taking what amounts to a legal hit of morphine is an ever increasing number of people who are dying from abusing or misusing pain medication.  Among some groups, deaths from prescription drug overdoses are more than ten times higher than they were in the late 1960s. These are the results of an age-period-cohort analysis using data from the US Vital Statistics and the US Census, available online.

In the absence of significant pain, prescription painkillers are ingested because of their very powerful relaxing effects on the central nervous system and for the sensations of well-being that characterize their action. The presence of hydrocodone, which is the equivalent of synthetic opium, in these drugs makes them highly addictive. The first signs of a painkiller overdose include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, sweating, and confusion or weakness. Later symptoms may include pain in the upper stomach, dark urine, and yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes. Overdose symptoms may also include extreme drowsiness, pinpoint pupils, cold and clammy skin, muscle weakness, fainting, weak pulse, slow heart rate, coma, blue lips, shallow breathing, or no breathing.

The rapid increase in mortality due to accidental poisoning that has been observed since 2000 is almost tenfold for whites and threefold for blacks over the study period. This appears to result at least in part from the coming of age of baby boomers who, as they age, are becoming addicted to prescription medications, most especially pain killers. The majority of prescription drug abuse involves painkillers, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. In the US, Vicodin (containing acetaminophen and hydrocodone) is the most commonly abused prescription drug.

The greatest proportion of overdoses appears to occur in people in their 40s and 50s. While in 1968 about one per 100,000 white women in their early 50s died from accidental poisoning, the number has risen to 15 per 100,000 in 2007. Among black women of the same age, accidental poisoning deaths increased from about two per 100,000 to almost 17 per 100,000.

What’s the fix for this nationwide epidemic?  In the absence of an objective pain measure, it is hard to imagine how anyone can take exception to the screams of pain that can come from someone who is in the process of becoming addicted to pain medication, or already is.  Many doctors have taken the no-hassle course of prescribing, rather than questioning the veracity of the patient’s pain.  Many other medical practitioners, such as dentists and surgeons, have taken to dispensing large quantities of “samples” to patients who have had even the simplest procedure, “just in case you feel any pain.”  Of course, the patient takes the stuff, the pain (if any) goes away, and the powerful effects of the drug go to work by inducing a high that feels incredibly good. At this point, and in many sad cases, only a few short steps separate the patient from the addict.

More recently, the DEA has cracked down on pharmacies and doctors, with the intent of reducing the supply of these medications. More needs to be done to stop the flow, but also and most especially to educate the public on the potential addictive nature of these substances. They do work extremely well against pain, but at what cost?

Fear and Attraction: Racial Stress

The-Pirates-AttackThe coastal populations of Mediterranean countries lived for decades, stretching into centuries, with the fear of pirates, the strange invaders suddenly appearing from the sea.  Inhabitants of regions bordering with sparsely settled or frontier territories lived in fear of the sudden appearance of “barbarians” or “savages,” variously labeled according to time and locale.  With the increased sameness of living conditions brought on by progress and technological advance, there now remain far fewer parts of the world where the fear of strange invaders is part of daily life.  But is the fear of people that are unlike us still in the background, perhaps below the threshold of full awareness, but active nonetheless in driving our reactions, and sometimes our prejudice and discrimination?

The Strange Attraction of the Strange

barbarians-at-the-gatesWithout attempting a comprehensive definition of racial diversity, at a very minimum, physical differences in appearance often appear to be the first (and sometimes the only) trigger of a psychological defense mechanism.  In most human beings, there appears to be an innate drive to self-preservation that may be activated in the presence of individuals we may not recognize as familiar to us.

Often, there appears to be an instinctive and uncontrollable stress reaction that mobilizes our psychological, and at times also physical defenses against what we perceive as a possible threat from another human being.  This is by no means a new phenomenon.  As the coastal villagers and the frontier dwellers, we know that our own survival depends on being able to accurately assess any potential threat to ourselves and to our families and possessions, and take the most appropriate action (fight, flee or do something else) toward self-protection.

Clearly, not everyone we meet who is not like us is automatically a physical or psychological threat to our well-being.  Indeed, even those who appear to be exactly like us, in race, language, culture and background, may turn out to be a severe threat.  In ensuring survival, it pays to be alert to any potential danger. As President Reagan once put, Trust But Verify is a wise policy to live by, in politics but also in business and in interpersonal relations.

In some ways, we are attracted to the strange and the unfamiliar.  Our attention is automatically directed to it, out of simple curiosity, concern or fear.  When a different physical appearance is thrown in the mix, the perceived threat may be magnified by real or imaginary thoughts of danger and risk.  Paradoxically, there is also a part of us that is attracted to risky or dangerous situations, which does nothing to simplify the cacophony of feelings that are triggered by the sudden appearance in our midst of the strange and the mysterious.

A Universal Phenomenon

racially-diverse-babiesIt appears that no particular group of human beings is immune to this type of consideration when coming in contact with strangers.  There is certainly also an economic factor that plays a role, as when the need to defend one’s income or property, ends up taking precedence over solidarity and cooperation with the stranger.  It has been observed that people down on their luck, destitute, physically ill, or in need of urgent help seem to exhibit a tendency to be far less discriminating or threatened by the stranger than those who, by their own definition, may have a lot more to lose in such encounters.  Thankfully, human solidarity seems to shed at least part of its suspicions and reservations in the face of natural disasters or man-made calamities.  There are indeed moments in time when we realize that we are all humans, that we share a common identity, and that we inhabit this small planet together, if not always at peace with each other.

Awareness Normalizes

Our God-given capacity to muster our defenses against potential threats is a powerful asset, whose importance should not be overlooked even in a world where physical danger has been greatly diminished (though certainly not eliminated) by the safeguards of civilization.  Imagine would it would be like to automatically and unthinkingly assume that everyone we meet is friendly, honest, kind and has our best interest at heart.  Unrealistic, naive?  Yes, and I would also say, definitely dangerous to our personal and collective well-being.

Being aware that we possess the gift of discriminating between the real and the perceived, the dangerous and the annoying, the severe and the trivial can help us realize that it is the way we normally are and to make the best use of it.  Racial discrimination may be caused by an overuse of this important asset.  To automatically assume that anyone not like us (by various definitions) is a dangerous threat is clearly discriminatory, exaggerated and ultimately detrimental to our own well-being.  We are societal beings, by nature, and isolating ourselves from large swatches of humanity may be an attempt at self-defense, but one that clearly exceeds the intent and the practice of reasonable threat assessment. Unreasonable fear and loneliness often travel together.

Sympathetic Muscle Tension and Stress

One of the well-known phenomena that accompany the stress response is the spontaneous and uncontrollable action of the sympathetic nervous system on the musculoskeletal structures of the body. Stress, muscular tension and pain often go hand in hand.

The Alarm or Stress Response of the Sympathetic Nervous System

bungee-jumpingWhen the sympathetic nervous system is suddenly stimulated by a stressor, there is an almost immediate increase in the body’s ability to carry out unusually vigorous muscle activity, even in individuals who would ordinarily not be capable of it.This almost prodigious increase in strength is facilitated by a cascade of physiological changes that is precipitated by stressful situations.

These changes, which take place in a matter of mere seconds, include:

  1. Increased arterial blood pressure.
  2. Increased blood flow to the muscles along with a corresponding decrease in blood supply to the gastrointestinal tract and the kidneys, which are not needed in mounting the body’s rapid response to the threat.
  3. Increased rates of cellular metabolism, which speed up the body’s rate of functioning.
  4. Increased blood glucose concentration, which provides increased levels of energy.
  5. Increased glycolysis in the liver and in the muscle, also a factor in energy supply.
  6. Increased muscle tension and preparedness to work, which increase tone and strength.
  7. Increased mental activity, which provides acuity, alertness and greater focus on the threat.
  8. Increased rate of blood coagulation, which protects the body from significant blood loss if it should sustain minor cuts and puncture.

The combined effects of the mobilization of virtually all principal organs is what enables the body to perform significantly more strenuous physical activity than it is ordinarily possible. Stress of any kind, physical, emotional or mental, excites the sympathetic system, whose purpose is to provide above-normal activation of the body’s resources. Because of this stimulation, the stress response is often referred to as the sympathetic stress response.

Emotional vs. Physical Stress

The sympathetic system is activated during physical danger, but it is also and more frequently activated by many real or perceived emotional stressors. Guyton-Hall cite the example of anger or rage,

…which is elicited to a great extent by stimulating the hypothalamus, signals are transmitted downward through the reticular formation of the brain stem and into the spinal cord to cause massive sympathetic discharge; most aforementioned sympathetic events ensue immediately. This is called the sympathetic alarm reaction. It is also called the fight or flight reaction because an animal in this state decides almost instantly whether to stand and fight or to run. In either event, the sympathetic alarm reaction makes the animal’s subsequent activities vigorous.
–Textbook of medical physiology by Arthur C. Guyton & John E. Hall, 11th ed.

Chronic Stress

The same exact response can be elicited even daily in individuals exposed to multiple or repeating stressors, such as a negative environment, a dysfunctional relationship, poor working conditions, or difficult socio-economic challenges. In this case, the muscle tension and sympathetic stimulation can be so great and so frequent that the body cannot return to a normal state of relaxation, in which case a chronic stress condition can ensue.

Is Time a Ferrari or a Donkey Cart?

Time can be, and indeed is, for many people a source of stress. The perception of time or the use we make of the time we have can present a challenge to the mind and be causes of emotional distress. At times, and for some people, time flies by Ferrari-fast. For others, it seems to inch forward in fits and starts, perhaps more akin to the pace of a reluctant donkey.

The Perception of Time

timeimage Rationally, we understand that time passes at a substantially fixed pace with no perceptible variation. The earth rotates around the sun at a precise speed, given or take a few mph’s, and the sun in turn moves around the galaxy at an equally precise speed, give or take a few kmh’s. Our whole universe expands at a measurable rate, as scientists who have been able to measure it tell us. Since the invention of clocks, humans have acquired the ability to slice daylight and nighttime intro those discrete units of measure we call hours. The calendar helps us group hours into days, months, weeks and years. Humans have also agreed among themselves that years can be grouped into decades, centuries and millennia. And that’s how we generally understand, rationally, the passage of time as an objective and measurable phenomenon.

How we perceive the passing of time, however, ends up being far more subjective and somewhat unpredictable. Certain slices of time can appear to one individual to be passing more slowly than for another. Within our own personal experience, there are hours or days or longer periods in which time seems to speed up (especially when we are experiencing something pleasurable), and others in which it seems to slow down (think dentist chair). Excluding any chemical influence that may alter our perception (e.g., medication, alcohol or other artificial or natural mind-altering substances), these different “speeds” of time can indeed be puzzling and seemingly without explanation. In fact, these perceptions can and do induce stress and anxiety about having too little time, or boredom and restlessness about having too much of it. What is happening to the objectivity and predictability of time when it is perceived through our emotions?

The Emotion of Time

Age and one’s mental and emotional state appear to have something to do with the emotional perception of time. Most people recall feeling that time passed very slowly in their childhood and, indeed, young people confirm that, for them, time tends to be perceived as crawling along. Conversely, older people are often heard complaining that time seems to zip along very fast and that, “it seems like yesterday that I was having such and such” or, “where is the day-week-month-year gone? It’s already Christmas!”

In times of distress, especially if traumatic events are occurring, we might perceive every second of time with heightened sharpness, which can contribute to the perception that “time stands still” when something dramatic is happening. The opposite is produced by very positive feelings of pleasure and enjoyment, that are often said to be “way too short” in duration. Indeed, a week’s vacation can go by in just a flash (perception-wise), whereas a week in school or at work may seem like it’s never going to end. Both last exactly one week, by the way.

The Best Way To Handle Time

The best approach to time, emotionally, is to just let it pass. Paying too much attention to the passing of time is counterproductive. In fact, it can be anxiety-provoking and, in addition, take us either too far forward or too far back and render us unable to enjoy the moment.

Thought stopping, a congitive-behavioral technique, can help in this respect. Whenever we catch ourselves paying too much attention to the passing of time (or rather, to its perceived speed), we can say, “stop!” to our thoughts and divert our attention elsewhere. With practice, we may not completely eliminate our preoccupation with time, but we can minimize its impact on our ability to enjoy the present—which is, as a matter of fact, all that we have to enjoy.

The John Lennon Syndrome

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. John Lennon

I love this quote from John Lennon and often share it with clients when they’re feeling frustrated because things haven’t gone the way they planned; they haven’t made as much progress as they’d hoped; or perhaps a goal that was important to them hasn’t been achieved. Quite often this is due to the fact that ‘life’ simply got in the way.

Life Happens and sometimes it can throw up unwanted and unexpected challenges. I’ve experienced this myself in the past couple of months and have found myself having to deal with some very stressful situations. As a Life Coach I try to walk my talk and most of the time I feel I live a fulfilling and balanced life.  But I don’t always get it right and there are times when everything is knocked for six.  And I know that I’m not alone — this happens to everyone from time to time.

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned over the past few months:

Firstly, when we find ourselves in a stressful or challenging situation it’s really important to find ways to shore ourselves up and take care of ourselves. Take the pressure off — take it easy — don’t force yourself to do more than absolutely necessary.  Try to eat well, take some exercise, perhaps book in for a massage or healing or reflexology — whatever you find to be therapeutic. If you’re feeling anxious, find something that will act as a distraction, be it listening to music, going to a movie, doing a hobby or taking a walk — whatever works for you.

Secondly, if you have limited emotional and physical energy and resources, it’s crucial to make smart choices and concentrate only on those things that are of the highest priority.  What’s most important?  Each morning ask yourself what are the three areas I need to focus on today?  Forget everything else — just give yourself those three things to focus your attention on.  If you can get more done then great, but don’t ask or expect too much of yourself.

Thirdly, reach out for support.  It’s important not to try to soldier on and shoulder everything on your own.  Seek out family and friends who you can talk to — share your concerns — spend time with people who care for, and will support, you.  If you don’t have anyone to confide in, and your concerns are going round and round in your head, it can really help to get them out of your head and down on paper.

Finally, choose a positive image or mantra which you can use whenever you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed — or if you’re finding it hard to sleep. Think of something that embodies strength or calmness, or whatever emotional state you feel you need.

Mine is taken from this beautiful stone carving:  All shall be well.

No doubt many of you will have experienced what I call the John Lennon Syndrome in your own lives.  Don’t be too hard on yourself when life gets in the way and you don’t achieve as much as you’d hoped. ‘Life’ happens. Be easy on yourself and go with the flow. That’s what I’m learning to do.

Annabel Sutton

ICF Professional Certified Coach
Author of 52 Ways to Change Your Life

Connect with Annabel on LinkedIn: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/annabelsutton. Book a FREE Coaching Consultation with Annabel. Find out more about Life Coaching.

Stress and the Typical Male

typical-male Although all men are fully capable of experiencing the full range of human emotions and can face a variety of challenges, certain issues can occur more frequently in men than they do in women. Among the challenges that occur more frequently in men, the most common are self-medication through the use of alcohol or other substances, anger management, impulse control, and problems with emotional and sexual intimacy.

For many men, the healthy expression of stressful negative feelings can be a challenge. The typical male relies very heavily on a “logical or rational” approach to most emotional or psychological issues. Often from childhood, men have been accustomed to think that emotional vulnerability equals weakness and that it should be avoided as much as possible. Given this mindset, it is understandable that for many men it is objectively difficult to share with others how they are truly feeling. For some, it may even be difficult to read their own emotions correctly, to know for themselves how they are really feeling about certain issues. Issues arise that may require an adjustment of these beliefs and attitudes, as for example in the inability to connect, to open up in relationships, or in knowing how to be sensitive.

When this complex set of stress-inducing emotions are routinely avoided, repressed or denied, some problematic behaviors can result. Mismanaged emotions and feelings often produce addictions, compulsions, and avoidance. One of the most common ways of expressing hurt or emotional pain is anger; for other men, working longer hours helps them avoid relationship challenges; for others, superficial intimacy takes the place of genuine connection; other men resort to addictive substances and compulsive behaviors to “take the edge off” or avoid the full experience of negative feelings.

There are many counselors who specialize in working with men’s issues. The right counselor can help identify and work through avoidance, repression and denial in a way that appeals to men’s desire to approach issues in a logical, rational and goal-oriented way, while providing guidance toward learning about the values and benefits of emotional intelligence.

When Stress Hits You On the Nose

Stress-induced upper respiratory symptoms are not unusual. Stress has a powerful effect on the immune system, as the circulation of high levels of the excitatory hormones that accompany stress undermines its defense mechanisms, often producing symptoms such as those of the common cold.

How Does It Work?

sneeze.article Stress suppresses the activity of the immune system, principally due to the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. When under the impact of a significant stressor, the immune system is “flooded” by cortisol and other hormones and its functioning is, at least temporarily, greatly reduced. Thus, pathogens, such as those producing the common cold, have a relatively easier time entering and proliferating in the upper respiratory system.

This is the most prevalent theory of why people get sick while under stress. It does not affect everyone in the same way, however. For some people, it is not until the stressor is removed that adverse symptoms begin to manifest. In this case, it is almost as if the relaxation produced by the removal of the stressor had the effect of making the individual more vulnerable.

What Can Be Done?

A doctor once was asked how long it would take to cure a cold. His answer was, “Oh, about seven days if you take this prescription, or about a week if you decide not to take anything.”  Beside the joke, there is truth in the fact that there is no cure for the common cold, either stress-induced or otherwise. It will generally resolve itself, with or without medication, in about a week or so.

Something can be done however to reduce the effects of stress on the immune system. Some people find help in ingesting large quantities of vitamin C at the onset of their respiratory symptoms. Others find that remedies such as hot baths, hot drinks with honey, breathing exercises, yoga or meditation all have beneficial effects on the effects of stress, and thereby, on the immune system.

The Valor of Stress

James_DixonUnlike for physical injuries, no formal recognition is currently given by the US military for the biopsychosocial injuries sustained in combat, known as posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD.  It is as if the many behavioral, emotional, and social consequences of traumatic stress are perceived to be of lesser impact, and thus less deserving of acknowledgement.  That they can be serious enough to warrant medical and psychological attention is now fairly well established.

The evidence is certainly not lacking, as serious outcomes of PTSD continue to occur. Most recently, the blog The Soldier’s Load reported  the story of  James “Rooster” Dixon III, an ex-Marine and long-time sufferer from PTSD who was killed by a State Police SWAT team in front of his house in Baxley, Georgia.

James sought treatment from the VA for his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but was unable to shake the constant anxiety and depression that are hallmarks of the disorder. On February 19, 2012 James decided to end his struggle by walking into the bullets of law enforcement: as much a casualty of the war as any service member who died in Iraq.

The blog’s editor, as someone with direct experience of war zone and combat stress and its psychological consequences, also offer insights into his own struggles with PTSD.

I became a functional recluse—avoiding social situations and new experiences that might trigger a panic attack. Friends and acquaintances got accustomed to me declining their invitations to socialize. Eventually they stopped asking. I drank heavily and destroyed romantic relationships in a depressing cycle of thrilling novelty, fear of entrapment and cold dismissal. After three years of struggling with the symptoms of my unknown malady, I chose to leave the Marine Corps. On my way out the door, the VA finally diagnosed me with combat-induced PTSD.

A Purple Hart for PTSD?

images Events such as the tragic end of James Dixon highlight the important questions that still surround how PTSD is perceived, labeled, acknowledged and treated—including the idea of awarding a Purple Hart in recognition of this very serious constellation of injuries that are sustained by so many service men and women. According to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Purple Heart medal “is awarded to members of the armed forces of the US who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.”  Should this wording be applicable to PTSD?

The Soldier’s Load asks,

Why do we fail to classify veterans with PTSD as combat wounded? I suggest that the reason has less to do with logic and more to do with the emotions surrounding a small bronze portrait suspended from a narrow purple ribbon. (…) Until we correctly label combat-induced PTSD as a “wound” suffered from contact with the enemy, we as a society will continue to view its sufferers as a shadow legion of men with strange habits and questionable character. We will not methodically identify the trauma, apply medical treatments, and provide appropriate rehabilitation and therapy during the recovery process. In short, we will draw distinctions between segments of combat veterans based on an arbitrary and antiquated determination that only the visible wounds of war are worth recognition, honor and treatment. Such a view will not be helpful to the thousands of combat veterans waging a daily war within, nor prevent some from ending that struggle before victory is won.

Read the full blog post. Do you support a Purple Hart for PTSD?

Election Stress: What’s Remarkable

Have you noticed how resilient, how unflappable, how remarkably at ease the Republican candidates seem to be with the ups and downs of the primaries? I see good public stress management in this.  There appears to be an ability to maintain one’s composure in the face of the many gyrations brought on by polls, speculations and actual results, which have made these primaries particularly stressful and also particularly interesting.

Unless one has direct experience of it, it is objectively hard to appreciate the rigors of a national political campaign.  The lack of sleep, poor nutrition, constant travel are hard on the body.  The need to be constantly on, to never let one’s guard down more than so much, to come across as competent and well prepared on anything the candidate may be asked to speak on are hard on the mind.  The relentless demands of the news cycle, the unflinching stare of the media and of the public in general, and the near-constant re-examination of one’s principles, conviction and history are hard on the soul.  There is probably no better image of what stressful circumstances really are about than a candidate for political office on a bus or airplane, exhausted, traveling toward yet another rally, another interview, another stump speech, another event.  And it goes on like this for months and months.

The aging that takes place in office is a well known phenomenon.  In our modern era, we have photographs of presidents taken at all points of their campaign, at inauguration, at midterm, and after they leave office.  It is plain to see the toll that the job takes on the individual’s physical appearance.  Less obvious is the toll that it takes on the mind and on the soul. The fact that we have presidents and ex-presidents who not only do what they are supposed to do, but do it well, and continue to be in good health and function well into their late adulthood is certainly a testament to their resilience and excellent stress management skills.

And so for the candidates, the test begins upon declaring their intention to run for the highest office.  The highly public management of their stress levels begins at that moment and never lets up. If their bid is unsuccessful and their campaign ends, they can return to normality and what they may have to work through is the fallout from having lost their campaign.  Not easy, to be sure, but at least it can be relatively private.  For those who succeed and win primary after primary, or win enough to be a player and stay in the race, the rigors of the campaign will either hone their skills or bring out the lack thereof.

When the last man is finally left standing and he’s elected president of the United States, another even more demanding phase of public stress management begins, never to let up again until the very end of life.  It is remarkable and an object lesson that it can even be done as well as it is by these truly exceptional individuals we call our presidents.