Worried? Losing sleep? It’s hard not to be stressed in 2019
Are you feeling stressed? Do your days bring more OMGs than LOLs?
Do you lose sleep over finances, violence, politics or the country and planet’s future?
If you have a kid(s), do the demands of parenting cause anxiety? If you are a kid, do the pressures of adolescence prompt the same?
Small comfort, perhaps, but you are hardly alone: Local, national and even global surveys all show an increase in negative feelings and experiences over at least the last decade.
• The Rhode Island Department of Health’s annual Behavioral Risk Factor survey in 2017, the latest year completed, found 14.6% of respondents in the state experiencing “frequent mental distress,” up from 13.3% in 2011.
That year, 22% of respondents reported experiencing depression, which rose to 23.1% in 2017.
• The Gallup 2018 Global Emotions Report, based on interviews with more than 154,000 people in more than 145 countries and released last September, showed a dramatic rise since 2006 of individuals experiencing anger, sadness, stress and worry.
The United States ranked as the most worried nation, with more than half of adults saying they were stressed “a lot of the day.”
Mental and physical
The effects of stress are not limited to mental health.
“Stress causes the body to put out stress-related hormones and the stress-related hormones elevate blood pressure and are related to heart disease and stroke,” former state Health Department Director Dr. Michael Fine, now Blackstone Valley Community Health Care’s senior clinical and population health officer, told The Journal.
“People compensate for stress often by eating; the eating creates obesity; the obesity creates diabetes, heart disease and stroke,” Fine said. “I think everybody suspects there is some connection to cancer.”
Some individuals respond to stress by abusing drugs or alcohol, and there is an association between stress and increased suicide rates.
And stress and trauma can permanently change the developing brains of children, affecting lifelong health, educational, economic and social outcomes. There is even preliminary research suggesting that stress can alter the biology of a person’s as-yet-unborn children and grandchildren, meaning susceptibility to anxiety and trauma could be passed to future generations.
“In animals, exposure to stress, cold or high-fat diets has been shown to trigger metabolic changes in later generations,” wrote Science, the official publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest scientific society, in an article last month. “And small studies in humans exposed to traumatic conditions — among them the children of Holocaust survivors — suggest subtle biological and health changes in their children.”
The article quotes Michael Skinner, a biologist at Washington State University, saying, “This is really scary stuff. If what your grandmother and grandfather were exposed to is going to change your disease risk, the things we’re doing today that we thought were erased are affecting our great-great-grandchildren.”
What to do?
“The first, best thing is probably exercise,” said Fine.
He recommends about 45 minutes of aerobic exercise daily, which stimulates the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters known to alleviate stress and pain. “It also has the effect of burning calories, and the more calories you burn, the less likely you are to become obese.”
Quality sleep — seven or eight hours a night for adults — is also on Fine’s list. So, too, is finding a good primary care physician if you do not already have one.
But Fine, author of “Health Care Revolt,” which calls for dramatic reform of American health care, acknowledges that some sources of stress — living in a violent neighborhood, for example — cannot be easily resolved. And people working long hours at low-paying jobs just to survive may not have the time or energy for daily aerobic workouts.
“The challenges are too many people who have to work two and three jobs to keep it all together,” he said. “It’s hard for me to say to those people, ‘Take 45 minutes to exercise’ when they are having trouble keeping hand-to-mouth (existence) together.”
Mind your mind
Mindfulness, the act of “living in the moment” by calmly acknowledging one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations, can also make a difference with worry and stress.
Many therapists, life coaches and others strongly endorse the practice — and Dr. Judson Brewer, of Brown University and Butler Hospital, has conducted research confirming its benefits. A popular TED Talks speaker, Brewer also has created (with MindSciences Inc.) the Unwinding Anxiety app, which teaches mindfulness.
“Many of us don’t actually know how our minds work, and this is especially true with anxiety,” Brewer said. “It can really feel like a black box. In fact, we might feel anxious and then start worrying as a way to do something to control that anxiety.
“We can start to feed what’s described as ‘a habit loop’ around this that triggers the anxiety. … And then worry starts to spin out of control where the worry creates more anxiety which creates more worries, and then we go into this black hole or this spiral of anxiety and worry,” he said.
With mindfulness, Brewer said, “we can actually hack into this process, this habit loop.”
This “hacking,” Brewer said, prompts the mind to become curious about thoughts and emotions:
“We can actually turn our awareness and just ask this question: Hmm, what am I feeling right now? Where am I feeling this? What are the thoughts that are going through my head? And that helps us not get caught up in those worry habit loops.”
Share with others
Psychologist Nicole R. Nugent, an associate professor with the departments of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Pediatrics and Emergency Medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, specializes in the research and treatment of children, adolescents and families. But her guidance on relieving stress can apply to anyone.
“Social support,” the sharing of experiences and concerns with family, friends and other “people you can lean on,” is important, she said.
“Knowing that I’m feeling down and I can call my friend or go play basketball together — or, believe it or not, play an online video game together,” can be effective, Nugent said. Such social supports can help build resilience.
But support involving “co-rumination,” the sharing of stressful experiences with others that reaches no positive conclusion, Nugent said, is not beneficial:
“Everybody’s going back and forth and talking about something that isn’t going anywhere, and you’re not feeling better because you’re not actually moving forward.”
Get some help
Also unproductive, the psychologist said, is what she describes as the “echo chamber we have sometimes in social media where it’s like, ‘I’m really worried about this thing that’s happening in society or in the world,’ and then the other people are feeding back into that and we’re all together saying ‘let’s worry, let’s worry, let’s worry.’ ”
Like Brewer, Nugent advises the practice of mindfulness. And as a clinician, she suggests professional help for people living with severe trauma or stress.
“It’s quite sad to have somebody suffering when that doesn’t need to be that way,” she said. “We have good treatments for children and adolescents and adults with PTSD and depression and severe anxiety.”
Not sure what category, if any, you fit? Make an appointment with a therapist or psychiatrist anyway, Nugent said.
“Worst-case scenario, someone comes to see me and I say, ‘It seems like you’re doing pretty good. Let’s check in a couple of months and make sure things are still good.’ So if there’s any part of you that’s thinking, “maybe I should go talk to somebody” — go, because there’s no negative.
“You’re going to have somebody listen to you and care about you for an hour.”