In 2018, Americans ranked among the most stressed people in the world, according to a Gallup Poll. Americans reported feeling stress, anger and worry at the highest levels in a decade, according to the survey.
At the time, about 55 percent of adults said they had experienced stress during “a lot of the day” prior, compared with just 35 percent globally. About 45 percent of the Americans surveyed said they had felt “a lot” of worry the day before, compared with a global average of 39 percent.
Mind you, this was pre-pandemic.
Stress is problematic because it affects all of the body’s organ systems, including the brain and nervous system, the cardiovascular system, the musculoskeletal system, the immune system and the digestive system. Stress can even affect our perceptions, thoughts, beliefs and feelings.
There is mounting evidence that chronic stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to long-term physiological dis-regulation, resulting in problems such as increased blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmias, digestive problems, chronic headaches, back aches and sleep disorders, as well as psychological disorders such as chronic anxiety, depression or both.
While stress is often unhealthy, we often habitually and automatically react to it in ways that are also unhealthy.
About 38 percent of adults in 2017 battled an illicit drug use disorder, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which is stunning.
This included use of illegal drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol and tobacco, and the misuse of prescription drugs.
Food is often used to cope with stress and emotional discomfort. Many people eat whenever they feel anxious or depressed. Food is often used as a means to fill an emptiness inside. Foods high in fat and sugar, the so-called comfort foods, are most commonly used to deliver stress relief.
Yet, there are other unhealthy strategies that people utilize to cope with stress. One is to simply deny that there is any problem at all. Another is workaholism; if one feels stressed by family life, working provides an excuse to not be at home.
These are all examples of maladaptive coping attempts; while they may give some relief in the short run, they can compound stress in the long run. They don’t ultimately make us healthier or happier. Your body can tell you some important things, if you’re willing to listen to it rather than tuning out.
It is not the particular stressor itself but how you perceive it, then how you handle it, that will determine whether or not it will lead to stress. Your perception and how you handle the stressor makes all the difference in how much stress you will experience. If we can change the way we see, we can change the way we respond, thereby significantly lowering our stress, as well as its short- and long-term consequences for our health and wellbeing.
In the end, we are well-advised to stop reacting to stress and to instead start responding to it. Responding to stress with greater mindfulness instead of reacting to it habitually and automatically can dramatically reduce the negative effects of stress.
We can become more resistant to stress, more resilient, if we build up our resources and enhance our physical and psychological wellbeing via meditation, regular exercise, adequate sleep, and a sense of deep connectedness with others, to name four of the most important.
This bears repeating. Healthy coping strategies include: meditating, exercising regularly, practicing yoga, praying, sharing your feelings with close friends, and having hobbies or interests that take your mind off your troubles. People who do these things tend to be stress hardy.
Having a healthy strategy to manage pressure or stress can reduce our dependence on the common maladaptive coping strategies that we so often resort to, and get stuck in, when we feel tense.
Greater resilience in the face of stressors and reduced stress reactivity are characteristic of people who practice meditation regularly. This has been demonstrated in a large number of studies.
This is why I practice meditation daily, and why I teach it to others. If you’re interested in beginning a meditation practice, reach out and let me know. I have many years of experience and can help you get started.