Stress – America’s #1 Health Problem

Seventeen years ago the government passed a resolution declaring April “Stress Awareness Month,” in hopes of increasing public awareness and education of what was referred to in a 1983 Time magazine cover as “The Epidemic of the Eighties.”

Decades later stress is targeted as “America’s No. 1 Health Problem,” impacting human wellness from a simple increased susceptibility to the common cold to life-threatening illnesses such as stroke, heart disease, hypertension and cancer.

The bad news is that while we’ve had years of awareness and education, our lives have actually become more stressful. According to a 2008 American Psychological Association (APA) study, nearly half of Americans reported increased stress levels over the past years, with nearly one-third of the respondents rating their stress levels as “extreme.”

The concept of “stress,” as we know it was first identified in 1936 by Hans Selye, an Austro-Hungarian physician and endocrinologist. Early in his career this gifted and pioneering scientist developed a theory of the influence of stress on people’s ability to cope with and adapt to the pressures of injury and disease, thereby creating the first concept of stress. He dedicated his entire lifetime to the study of stress and related problems, and is sometimes referred to as “The Einstein of Medicine” for his research and findings.

While Selye’s definition of stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change” is still applicable, the concept of stress has taken on a more commonplace meaning. Once considered an inevitable by-product of the lifestyles of high-powered executives and career-track single mothers, stress has come to mean, quite simply, our ability to cope with the wear and tear of ordinary life.

Although clinical definitions of stress differ – and even change as the years go by – the bottom line for us in our personal lives is that we are constantly responding to changing circumstances, relationships, finances, information, schedules, physical demands, work responsibilities, family issues – all the stuff that life is made of.

Respondents in the APA study (more than 2500 participants) listed the factors, in descending order, that they felt produced the most stress: money, the economy, work, family health problems, family responsibilities, housing costs, relationships, personal health problems, job stability and personal safety. More than 80 percent of the respondents recognized the negative impact stress could have on a variety of conditions, which included depression, heart attack or stroke, high blood pressure, cancer, obesity, and insomnia – as well as “their ability to make decisions or get things done at least once a week.”

But it’s not all bad news. While stress has been defined, researched, publicized and studied, a number of stress management techniques and coping mechanisms have been identified as well.

Firstly, not all stress is bad. Dealing with stressful situations can actually give us more energy, keep us alert, and help us stay focused; giving us the sensation of feeling “pumped,” or “wired.” But if (or when) the level of stress escalates, eventually we lose our ability to respond positively, although this occurs at different times for different people.

And secondly, making lifestyle changes to improve overall health, from diet and exercise to changing careers and limiting stressful activities, help us manage stress. But one of the most powerful strategies for managing stress is relaxation. A regular practice of 20-30 minutes a day of deep relaxation – particularly meditative relaxation – can not only reduce the mental and emotional stress we feel, but also help us control and even reduce the negative effects of stress on our bodies.

We can accomplish this by using age-old relaxation strategies of strolling along the beach, reclining beside a woodland brook, or taking a walk in a tranquil forest. Studies have shown that the deep state of meditative relaxation we achieve in these activities provides a natural return to personal harmony, evoking the alpha or theta brainwaves known to be produced during states of profound relaxation.

While our busy lives and demands on our time prevent us from enjoying these types of relaxing getaways on a daily basis, the ability to reach a satisfying level of relaxation in a short period of time in the course of a normal day can greatly assist in managing stress. And we now know, from years of research, that achieving the invaluable relaxed alpha or theta brainwave state is fundamental to the process.

The difficulty to quickly and easily achieve the required relaxed state has been resolved by many of the Monroe Products Hemi-Sync® audio CDs. The Hemi-Sync® frequencies contained in the CDs can greatly enhance the relaxation and meditation process by combining alpha or theta signals with soothing music or guided imagery. There are dozens of relaxation and meditation titles to choose from, offering deep relaxation and/or meditation exercises ranging in length from 30 to 75 minutes.