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Stress: American killer

The last time I can remember having a truly stress-free day, I was 5 years old and my grandparents were taking me to Disney World to see Mickey Mouse for the very first time. My biggest worries of that day were deciding whether or not to cry on the dinosaur ride, if would upset my grandmother by continuing to lick one side of my chocolate ice cream cone and watching it hit the ground in a big dribbling mess and how long I could take walking in the 95-degree Florida weather before diving into the cushiony seat and shade of my covered stroller.

Ah, those were the days.

Over the years, stress has increasingly become a major part of my life; so much so, that sometimes it’s hard going back to that day at Disney in my mind, recalling a time when I didn’t experience it for a good 24-hour period. From making sure I’m at work on time every day to completing homework and term papers on the right due dates, to being there for friends and family when they need me and then somehow maintaining a personal life (not to mention eating, paying bills and even maintaining a regular hygiene routine), it’s become rather difficult for me to balance my stress.

I know I’m not the only one feeling this way.

Americans are known for living by one never-changing, ever-moving fact of life that has become the root of all stress (in my opinion): time. We’re always moving against it. We never have enough of it. I always hear someone saying it, “There’s just not enough time in a day.” When I was that little kid at Disney World drooling over Mickey Pops, meeting Cinderella and what was in that magic-looking ball, I can remember laughing at hearing adults say that, because days always seemed long to me. I was always rested after a night’s sleep, up early every morning and ready to go. Today, I finally understand the truth behind that saying.

So stress affects most of us here in America, I think we can all agree on that. But what, exactly, are those effects?

Stress wasn’t designed to harm us. It was intended to motivate us for the purpose of survival. More primitively, stress as a response is known as the flight-or-flight reaction. Essentially, it is a normal, physical response to events that make you feel upset or threatened. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic and alert. (It also works well on those last minute term papers you stay up all night to get finished by the morning.)

But beyond a certain point, stress can result in some very negative ramifications. Did you know that researchers suggest that as much as 60 to 90 percent of illnesses are directly caused or exacerbated by stress?

Anxiety or Depressive Disorder. Research has shown a link between high sensitivity to stress and the onset of severe anxiety and depression. As such, chronic stress can destroy the ability to enjoy life, accomplish goals and maintain healthy relationships.

Heart Disease and Stroke. There is also a link between acute stress, heart disease and stroke. The psychological response to stress has detrimental affects on the heart and circulatory system, including an increased heart rate and restricted arteries. Over time, this can lead to heart attacks.

Weight. You’re probably familiar with all the talk about how stress can cause or lead to obesity. This is true, however, it is also true for the opposite. Depending on the person, stress can motivate a person to eat too much or too little, causing severe weight gain or weight loss. The stress hormone cortisol can cause an increase in abdominal fat, while in other cases, anorexia, bulimia and binge eating can result.

Sleep Difficulty. Stress is among one of the main factors related to sleep difficulty. We all know how important sleep is. It allows our bodies to recharge, providing energy to take on new days. When a person experiences chronic stress or overwork, it’s almost impossible to relax mentally and physically, so they get very little of that essential recharge period. This puts the body under even more stress, only adding to the problem.

Concentration and Memory. Chronic and acute stress can lead to problems with concentration and memory. Studies have shown that individuals subjected to stress have a higher difficulty with short-term and verbal memory. Stress also makes it more difficult to pay attention to detail, causing careless accidents and problems with work or academic demands.

Pain. Stress can intensify chronic pain. Emotional distress has also been linked to a heightened sensitivity to arthritis and back pain, while physical tension can cause muscle pains and headaches.

Gastrointestinal Disorders. Stress contributes to such problems as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease. Even if these more serious disorders don’t develop, people under a great deal of stress commonly experience mild to moderate stomach discomfort, nausea, constipation or diarrhea.

Even though it can seem nearly impossible to slow down and try to relieve stress, it’s important for maintaining physical and emotional health and balance.

(Most pertinent and factual information taken from HELPGUIDE.org.)