Stress: Silent Killer

“Lord, help me be the person my dog thinks I am.”

I muttered this to myself several times this week as I visited with an aging relative who is known for leaving a scorched-earth trail of stress wherever he goes. I kept telling myself to stay calm and avoid emotional traps and land mines that were ready to explode.

I managed to survive the visit without regretting my choice of words, and without elevating my stress beyond my ability to cope.

I think I made my dog proud.

However, my experience caused me to think once again about the relationship between stress and health.

A few months ago, Linda and I gave a lecture at a local library. We touted the benefits of friendship in helping women cope with stress. We were fortunate to have many women’s health experts in the auditorium  that day including physicians, psychologist and psychiatrists.

One of the audience members was Dr. Jane Dimer,  an OBGYN who is also the Womens Health Service Line Chief at Group Health in Seattle, Wash. In her practice, Dr. Dimer counsels her patients to limit stress as an important part of their overall wellness and health. She points to Dr. Robert Sapolsky as a pioneer in this field.

Robert Sapolsky is a biologist specializing in neuro-endocrinology. He’s a professor and conducts research at Stanford University and has been studying the biochemistry of the brain and the physiology of stress for 30 years. It is Sapolsky’s work in studying primates that helped popularize the phrase, “stress is a killer.” National Geographic created a documentary about his work titled, Stress:Portrait of a Killer,  in 2008. Just viewing the highlight reel is enough to elevate one’s “fight-or-flight”  response.

According to Sapolsky, stress is bad for our nervous system and stomach walls, can impair our ability to learn and can disconnect our neurons, and that is just a small sample of the damage. Although stress had been previously attributed to a state of mind or societal condition it can now be measured in our blood and urine and quantified in terms of glucocorticoids and norepinephrine and adrenal hormones. These chemicals are bad news and many studies now prove that chronic stress literally destroys the body and shortens life.

Read Sapolsky’s work or view this brief video summary more and podcasts through this page:

For our extra curious readers, you can test your knowledge about stress by taking the National Geographic stress quiz here:

Anyone exposed to Sapolsky’s work or a top-notch doctor such as Dimer cannot help but feel the immediate urge to simplify life, get a full night’s sleep and prioritize positive social gatherings. In fact, my own self-diagnosis upon my return from my stress-producing trip was to cover myself in a blanket of good friends.

Looking for happy “connections” has taken on a whole new meaning.

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Carol Lewis Gullstad, February 6, 2012

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