My 13th book, Best Future You, is out!
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from the book and blogging frequently about the main concept in the book – which is the idea of harnessing your body’s internal cellular biochemistry to achieve true balance in body, mind, and spirit – and in doing so, help you to become your “Best Future You” in terms of how you look, how you feel, and how you perform on every level.
Chapter 6 – Feel Your Best
Low Vigor and High Cellular Stress? You’re Not Alone
Do you ever feel that you’re working harder and harder but still getting further and further behind? If so, you have a lot of company. The average American workweek, research shows, has mushroomed from forty hours to fifty hours in the past twenty-five years. That level is higher than in any European country and equal to that of Japan. Those extra ten hours of work, however, have not gained workers much. In fact, U.S. workers today are behind in their ability to maintain the same overall standard of living enjoyed a generation ago. At the same time, our expectations have not changed. Even during tough economic times, people still feel pressure to be—or have—the best, whether they strive to own the best car or house or to be the best worker or parent. Talk about stress! And all those expectations are driving many to an early burnout. It is even becoming evident in kids, who run from school or day care to the babysitter to soccer to homework at the same frantic pace. Is it any wonder that the use of Ritalin and Prozac among North American children has increased, as has the diagnosis of ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder)?
Consider this too: When the American Psychological Association (APA) released its annual 2010 survey, Stress in America, it showed that the picture of an “overstressed nation” is as bad as it has ever been. One of the most striking conclusions from the APA survey was that “stress is not only taking a toll on our personal and physical health, but it is also affecting the emotional and physical well-being of children and our families.” The survey highlighted the fact that children today are more stressed than in years past and also found that kids easily recognize and identify their parents’ stress levels as a key source of their own stress.
As you might imagine, the most common sources of stress identified in the APA survey were money (76 percent), work (70 percent), and the economy (65 percent). But “family responsibilities” also emerged as a significant source of stress (73 percent).
Health experts identify a “healthy stress level” at about a 3 to 4 on a 10-point scale, with 1 representing low stress and 10 indicating extreme stress. Healthy intermittent exposure to stress can actually be a good thing. Some stress researchers, including myself, refer to this intermittent or “temporary” stress as “eustress”—that is, the type of stress that helps motivate you to meet a deadline or to achieve a goal. But chronic stress (or “distress”) leads to problems with biochemical balance, cellular stress, tissue breakdown, and a wide range of physical and psychological health problems that clearly keep us from feeling, looking, or performing at our best.
The average stress level reported in the APA survey was 5.5, with 24 percent reporting stress levels at 8 to 10 (on the 10-point scale). Those with “more stress” (average of 6.2) tended to have poor overall health, while those with “lower stress” (average of 4.9) tended to have excellent health. Individuals with even higher stress exposure (in the 8 to 10 range) tended to have significant problems with their weight or even obesity—very likely due to problems with biochemical balance and cellular stress and especially to an overexposure to cortisol and its associated increase in appetite for “comfort foods” and consequent storage of belly fat.
Americans across all age groups and geographic areas generally recognized that their stress levels are “too high” (69 percent) and that stress is not good for their health. But a majority of respondents also reported facing significant challenges in actually practicing healthy behaviors, such as reducing stress, eating better, exercising, getting enough sleep, and losing weight. Primary obstacles to those healthy behaviors included “being too busy” (22 percent) and a “lack of motivation or willpower” (29 percent). In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the APA survey was the clear indication that Americans know what they should be doing—but that they are not doing a good job of achieving their health goals. For example, if you look at the “gap” between knowing something is important and actually doing it (achievement), we see the following pattern:
Aspects of Well-Being: Importance vs. Achievement
|Getting enough sleep||67%||29%||38%|
|Eating healthy foods||58%||31%||27%|
|Getting enough exercise||54%||27%||27%|
|Having good relationships||79%||60%||19%|
Source: American Psychological Association—Stress in America Report, 2010
How can you close this gap? How can you break out of the negative spiral that pulls you down into cellular stress and psychological burnout and instead turn it around toward building cellular balance and physical and mental vigor? To answer these questions, let’s look at the example of reducing cellular stress and building stress resilience in one of our most important tissues, our brain. Consider the brain as the “central computer” that integrates all the environmental, internal, and biochemical cellular signals that, in turn, direct your behavior.
Thanks for reading – please tune into the next installment about, “Your Brain on Stress.”