Back in the 1960’s, a couple of psychiatrists put together a scale rating the impact of various stressors in life. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale rates 41 life events, giving them each a number of points. The highest stresses have the largest numbers, called “life change units” (LCU).
The idea behind the scale was not to learn that something happened to you and that’s a ‘25’ on the stress meter. The premise is that stress is cumulative, and that experiencing numerous stressful events at the same time can lead to illness.
This is a brilliantly designed biological system. We’ve all heard the stories of incredible strength created by the stress response, like a petite woman who was suddenly imbued with the superhuman ability to lift a car to save her child. Endorphins contribute to this phenomena as well. Those endorphins we love so much after a great workout also kick in during a stress reaction, suppressing pain and giving us the will and stamina to act without stopping to consider that there’s just absolutely no way we can do that.
Where does this brilliantly designed system fit into our modern world? Our lives today are riddled with minor stresses aside from the big ones identified on the Holmes and Rahe scale. We are constantly bombarded with stress and stimulation. Our ancestors did not carry devices that plugged them into constant communication with the world at large. They didn’t watch the news and find themselves horrified at the atrocities that humans commit, nor did they worry endlessly about the state of politics on the world stage or the threat of nuclear war. They had no traffic jams, no mortgage payments, no car trouble, no social pressure, no deadlines, no overwhelming uber-busy lifestyles.
We, however, do have all that going on and it can be pretty intense when combined with the personal situations we’re dealing with in our lives and, possibly, the internal demons like self-doubt that we need to face every day. One important operative concept here is that the stress response is triggered not only by “real” stresses, but by “perceived” ones as well. In other words, we have to beware of an overactive imagination, particularly when it comes to needless worry or negative internal dialogue.
The problem is that repeated activation of the stress response on any level can lead to a host of physical issues. Chronic bombardment with stress can have long-term impact, leading to high blood pressure and clogged arties as well as psychological changes that contribute to anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, digestive problems, depression and addiction. It can also contribute to weight gain and obesity in that elevated cortisol levels lead to increased appetite and fat storage. It goes without saying that many of these outcomes exacerbate the problem by increasing stress levels even more.
Ways to deal:
Get grounded. Recognize the feeling of excess stress. Take a deep breath or, better yet, many of them. Do whatever you need to do for distraction and relaxation – a nap, a workout, meditation, a cosy throw and a good book. Identify and quantify the stressor – major or minor? Will it matter a year from now? Reach out to a friend. Seek community interaction or solitude, whatever you need to ease your mind and soothe your soul.
Try to compartmentalize your stressors into separate entities that can be challenged individually. This is where the Holmes and Rahe scale comes into play. Remember that every one of these entities contributes to your total number on the stress chart.
We all have unavoidable stresses to deal with. The goal is to minimize the stressors that are unimportant and learn to readily recognize what we need to do for ourselves at any given moment to manage the rest.