Mental & Behavioral Health

Chronic Stress: Do You Churn & Burn Your Days?

During the 20th Century, the burden of disease shifted quite significantly to be one from changes in our lifestyle. In the early 1900's, Pneumonia and Tuberculosis were the leading causes of death in our culture. Since 2010, the leading causes of death are Heart Disease, Cancer, Medical Error, Respiratory Disease, Stroke and Diabetes. What's the cause of these diseases? That has shifted too. It's now Stress:

  • CDC has stated, "90 percent of visits to doctors are for stress-related illness with 60 percent of these being repeat visits"
  • AMA has stated, "85 percent of illness is caused by stress"
  • P.A. & Stress Institute Study stated, "Stress is one of leading causes of divorce, addictions, and weight gain/obesity

Not only is chronic stress affecting our physical, mental and emotional health, it's affecting our wallet and the wallet of employers. It's becoming a "business" issue as chronic stress becomes the #1 health risk for employers. We simply cannot continue at this pace.

As with many professions, we learn to tolerate burnout symptoms despite negative personal consequences to our overall health & well-being. However, in our discussion of chronic stress today, it's important to highlight how it's affecting the healthcare profession itself as well.

Burnout levels in healthcare professionals are exceeding the levels of any other professional group. Physicians have the highest rate of suicide among any profession. Roughly 10 percent to 15 percent of Physicians suffer from alcohol misuse which is slightly higher than that of the population as a whole.

Recent data is beginning to reveal the likelihood of chronic stress and burnout in medical error (3rd leading cause of death) which now is affecting patient care and health. The system designed to maintain our health is as challenged as the people who rely on it.

I do have good news. We CAN fix this. Stress IS fixable and reversible. We don't need to wait for a new advanced medical technology or a new medication. Nor, do we need to undergo a debilitating surgical procedure that requires weeks or months of rehabilitation. What we need to do is transform beyond the thought patterns creating our perception of the present moment AND rebalance our autonomic nervous system. Easy right?

To begin the process of change, it's important to understand a couple things about chronic stress. First, the physical aspects of stress have become chronic for most of us. What does that mean? It means that our autonomic nervous system has been trained, by us, to operate in the fight or flight response instead of the relaxation response.

You see, the nervous system recognizes and coordinates the "body's" response to the internal and external environment. Internally, it's physiologically and biochemically responding to what we perceive is happening externally. In the fast-paced and hurried lifestyles we're living today, we've trained our brain to think we're in danger.

It has become accustomed to overusing the fight or flight response which was designed for emergencies only. Chronic misuse damages the self-regulatory parts of the brain related to fight or flight.

Second, we live in the feeling of our thinking. Thoughts trigger feelings and emotions which trigger the choices we make (or patterns of behavior). Most of our thoughts, emotions and choices are happening unconsciously throughout the day as a learned response to our external environment.

Think of your drive to work. How often are you actually paying attention to the drive? We're not. We know the route inside and out and do it unconsciously. This continues while we're at work.

Intentional everyday action with breath and mindfulness are the prescription to calm our body/mind and shift from "threat" into calmer states of awareness providing the platform to transform unhealthy habits to healthful habits.

Physically, we've got to retrain the autonomic nervous system to go back to its' place of optimal health which happens by strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system. Proper nasal diaphragmatic breathing whereby we're paying attention to the length, depth and pace (LDP) of our inhale and exhale is where we start.

When we breathe in this fashion, we stimulate the vagus nerve and parasympathetic activity. Slowing our breathing patterns slows the cognitive process as well. No monkey mind.  Thoughts are slower, less choppy and involve deeper awareness rather than quick, superficial and repetitive thinking.

In the parasympathetic system, we can incorporate mindfulness strategies to witness thoughts, feelings and behavior.  It's here we reprogram executive functioning skills that support our goals and authentic sense of self personally and professionally.

Let's get you started on the path to change.  Today's assignment should you choose to accept it, provides you with a breathing exercise and mindfulness activity.

Go BE Great!

About the Author

Ed Harrold is an inspirational leader, public speaker, coach and educator. Today, Ed blends the fields of neuroscience and the wisdom of contemplative traditions into effective strategies to reduce stress while improving health, well-being & performance in Corporate, Healthcare, athletic and individual health. Ed's book "Life With Breath" Available March 2017. Learn more

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