Saturday, November 14, 2009

Stress - relief and rationality

I wanted to write a follow-up posting about mental-health issues, before I returned to writing nutrition articles.

As I wrote in my last posting, fear keeps many people from focusing on their goals and desires, trying new things, going on adventures, enjoying life and being happy. Fear is a very strong emotion, and it can be a leading contributor to feelings of stress. While stress is present in all of our lives and is not completely avoidable, we can take steps to lessen its effects.

Stress manifests itself in different ways in different people. People have varying abilities for coping with stressful situations, and are affected by situations differently. Stress is an individual experience and responses are unique to the individual. Sometimes stress can be even be helpful (eg: in competition or meeting a deadline); it makes us more focused on our task at hand. But, generally, when we think of stress, we think of that uncomfortable feeling that results in being unsatisfied, sad, angry or upset. However, we are able to control our responses to situations we find stressful and manage our lives to reduce the events that trigger stressful reactions. Part of managing stress is understanding what causes us to feel stressed and learning how to cope with those situations.

Prolonged stress is detrimental to our health. Being in a state of stress places increased demands on our bodies for energy. If the stress persists, our bodies are not able to continue to meet our elevated needs for energy. This can result in insomnia, inability to concentrate, poor judgement, and changes to our personality. Stress can also produce physical symptoms including headaches, backaches, loss of appetite and amenorrhea (loss of period). Chronic stress has been demonstrated to make us more susceptible to colds and other illnesses, increase the severity of upper respiratory infections, slow the healing of wounds, and decrease the response to vaccines. Stress also impairs our digestion, so even though we may be trying to feed our bodies well, when we are under stress our bodies are less able to absorb the nutrients from our food. Prolonged stress can even cause more serious illnesses, such as heart disease or cancer.

So how do we either avert stress or manage it so that it doesn’t become prolonged? Stress can result from both minor annoyances and major life events (loss of employment, financial concerns and debt, death of a loved one, relationship difficulties, marital tensions). While dealing with minor stressors is easier, we can take similar steps to address both kinds of stressors. One of the easiest and most effective ways to calm down your body is to sit down, relax your body, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths in and out. Clear your mind of the day’s worries and just concentrate on breathing in and out. This only takes a few minutes to do and allows you to bring your body to a calmer state, where it is then able to tackle the situation rationally. Sometimes when minor stressors are irritating us, removing ourselves from the situation, going for a walk or talking with a friend can be beneficial.

If the stressor is more than a minor annoyance, the next step is to examine why the situation is causing you to feel stressed and consider what you can do to address the problem. In order to accomplish this step though, you need to have relaxed yourself enough to be able to think rationally; this is where deep breathing, exercising or talking with a friend can help. Once you feel more relaxed, examine where you can take action. There’s no point in simply mulling over a situation in your head. Take the action that you can, know that you have done everything possible in the situation, and then try to let the rest go. Worrying or thinking about something that you cannot change, that is in the past and that you have no control over is not beneficial. It results in damage to your own health, causes those around you to feel agitated, and does nothing constructive in solving the problem. It is important to focus on the things that you do have control over, and take action where you can. You may need to re-evaluate circumstances from time to time, as the circumstances may have changed, and further action is possible. But mulling over the situation in between these times is not productive, and keeps you from living and enjoying your life. Being productive is helpful in relieving stress, as you are doing something to combat the situation.

Stress can also be caused by fears that are not based on actual probabilities, but that have been blown out of proportion by the media or society. Many people are fearful of events that are not very likely, and based upon which they change their actions, reactions or activities. These fears can limit us from engaging in certain activities, limit our interactions, and cause us stress, anxiety and worry. Here is a list of examples of events that cause people worry and stress, even though the likelihood of them occurring is relatively low: abductions, plane crashes, being mugged, or becoming critically ill from H1N1. Many people worry about these, even though the likelihood of experiencing any one of these incidents is fairly low (in Canada).

Here’s some statistics about influenza and the H1N1 flu:

On April 25, the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General declared the H1N1 flu to be a "public health emergency of international concern." On June 11, the WHO raised its Pandemic Alert Level to Phase 6, citing significant transmission of the virus. The declaration of H1N1 as a pandemic simply means that the virus has become widespread around the world, not that the flu is more severe than other types of flu.

Out of every 250,000 individuals who become ill with the H1N1 flu, only one will die. In Canada, between April and October 31, 2009 only 100 people have died from the H1N1 flu. This equates to a national cumulative crude mortality rate of 0.3 per 100,000 people. The national cumulative crude hospitalization rate is higher at 7.3 per 100,000 people. Out of the deaths that have occurred in Canada 75% of people had underlying health conditions and while some children have died from this flu, the median age of death is 49.5.

In the United States, every year between 15-60 million Americans will get the flu. Approximately 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu related complications and 36,000 people die from flu related causes. To compare this to the H1N1 flu - between April and October 2009, it is estimated that approximately 4,000 deaths, associated with H1N1, have occurred in the USA. Although the cases that the Centre for Disease Control in the US have confirmed to have been resulted from H1N1 is lower at 1,000.

Now, this is not meant to make light of the flu – it can cause severe or fatal illness, but the likelihood is low. It is important to be cognizant of the risk factors, and those groups with the highest likelihood of severe or fatal illness are: pregnant women, especially during the third trimester of pregnancy, children younger than 2 years of age, and people with chronic lung disease, including asthma. These groups should take precautions against the flu – but they do not need to be overly fearful of it nor should they completely change their lives because of a possibility of getting severely ill.

I’m going to end with a quote from Richard Schabas, Ontario's former chief medical officer of health who is now the medical officer of health for Ontario's Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Health Unit. "I think this is the most overhyped, overblown exercise I've ever been a part of. We continue to lavish resources on a problem that is just not that big." So far the national inoculation program has cost $1.51 billion in Canada.

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