Posts Tagged ‘Anxiety’
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously proclaimed in his first inaugural address that there was “nothing to fear but fear itself,” it was intended to encourage people not to despair in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis, a.k.a. the “Great Depression.” Much has been argued over the true meaning of his words, not least because they don’t make a lot of sense if taken out of context. Yet, they have lived on in the public discourse ever since, applicable as they seem in every generation.
Indeed, we are experiencing a time of acute fear and anxiety right now. People around the world are worried for countless reasons. There is hardly a place left on earth where populations enjoy relatively tranquil lives – not even in the remote Himalayan country of Bhutan, where achieving happiness for all is a declared goal of the government.
Many of us seem to be affected by an epidemic of worry. Oftentimes, it may start with something concrete, a situation or event one can point to, like the attacks of 9/11. But over time, a specific fear can turn into a state of growing uneasiness.
Worry is circular, it feeds on itself, gets out of hand, and eventually becomes almost uncontrollable, according to Francis O’Gorman, a professor of English literature at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, and author of “Worrying, a Literary and Cultural History” (Bloomsbury 2015).
While today’s world is a risky place and evokes many well-founded concerns, the experience of fear itself creates new risks that can affect a person’s health and well-being, says David Ropeik, an expert on risk perception. In fact, the hazards of fretting over perceived threats may be more harmful than the actual risks themselves, he argues.
The reason is that when a state of fear persists over extended periods of time, our bodies react to chronically elevated levels of stress. Once stress hormones flood the bloodstream without finding relief, they can literally become poisonous and lead to dire, even life-threatening consequences.
The human species could not have survived for long without the experience of fear. The ability to identify certain events and situations as dangerous and respond appropriately is essential for our existence. But these responses are meant to be rare and short-lived. If we cannot switch off this built-in alarm system of ours, it will quickly exhaust us, even turn against us.
In contrast to justified concerns – which can be motivating to take action – fear as a state of mind is paralyzing. It prevents clear thinking. It destroys hope and optimism. It can lead to destructive behavior and make us sick.
The fact that we are constantly bombarded with messages that contain potential threats, whether they occur nearby or halfway around the world, is not conducive to our psychological (and subsequently overall) well-being. We may live in an ever-more globalized environment, but we also must consider our limits as individuals who can only digest a finite amount of information.
No one should retort to a head-in-the-sand attitude. Our lives have become too complex and too intertwined to hide from reality. But if we keep getting overloaded with data that leave us feeling more helpless than empowered, we won’t be useful in tackling the problems we could otherwise help solving. We just end up hunkering down in fear, anger and despair. Not a healthy prospect. Not for anyone of us, and not for the world.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”
Being well fed was once a sign of wealth, but obesity is now most prevalent among poor people. Surveys by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a close connection between obesity rates and socioeconomic status in American adults. Particularly women at low income and education levels are at a high risk of developing weight problems at some time in their lives.
While most studies on the subject have been focusing mainly on the economic aspects of food-buying and eating habits of low-income earners – e.g. poor people buy food that’s bad for their health because it’s cheap and calorie-dense – more attention is now being paid to psychological responses to economical insecurity and how it can lead to dysfunctional behavior such as overeating and food addiction.
One particular study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), found that obesity may indeed be associated with mood and anxiety disorders, although the relationship can be complex and hard to pinpoint. Obesity may also be connected with other psychological disturbances such as depression, bipolar disorder and panic disorder, the study concluded.
Undoubtedly, economical hardship is one of the most stress-producing situations anybody can be exposed to. Researchers at the University of Manitoba, Canada, found that participants in a study who lived near or below the poverty line were at a substantially higher risk of developing anxiety disorders compared to their financially more secure counterparts.
Stress and anxiety are also well known as triggers of food cravings, especially for so-called “comfort foods.” Tests with lab rats have shown that stress increases the release of “endogenous opioids” in the brain, neurotransmitters that resemble opiates with similar addictive properties. They stimulate cravings for foods that can make you feel good in an instant, especially for those tasting sweet, salty and fatty that are so richly present in our Western diet.
Stress and anxiety-evoking experiences, of course, are not limited to acute financial difficulties. Our busy lives are filled with potential stressors in many ways. The effects are all the same, even when your daily challenges are more manageable. It is at times when you are not stressed to the hilt that you should put a plan in place that allows you to resist temptations when the going gets tough again.
Since food cravings in response to stress will inevitable occur, whether you fight them or not, it seems more helpful to keep food items around that are healthy and non-fattening, like fruits and vegetables, and to stay away from the chips and candy you may prefer at the moment but will cause you regrets later on.
What you don’t want to do is make matters worse either by artificially energizing your body with caffeine and sugar or by numbing yourself with alcohol or junk food. These are actually “stress-feeders,” even if they seem to bring contemporary relief.
If you need a boost or just something to make you feel better or let you cope more effectively, look for healthy “stress-busters.” Complex carbohydrates found in whole-grain breads, cereals and pastas, as well as oatmeal are good choices and nutritionally far superior to the simple versions you get from white breads and pastries. Carbohydrates help the brain produce serotonin, a chemical that relaxes you. Fresh fruits provide many vitamins and help strengthen the immune system, which is especially important when you are under heightened pressure. Almost all vegetables, cooked or raw, are beneficial for your nutritional health, and should be part of your daily diet, no matter what your state of mind is.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).
People get fat from eating too much and exercising too little. At least that’s the most widely held explanation for the growing obesity crisis around the world. But it’s not that simple, says Dr. Achim Peters, a professor of neurology at the University of Lübeck in Germany and author of “The Selfish Brain – Why Our Brain Sabotages Dieting and Resists the Body” (Ullstein, 2011).
The worldwide obesity epidemic is in truth a stress epidemic, and unhealthy weight gain is just one of the ills that plague an increasingly stressed population trying to cope with the ever-growing demands of modern life, he says in an interview with the German news magazine “Der Spiegel” (2/9/2013).
In reality, weight issues are often rooted in socio-economic difficulties like job loss, poverty, rising food prices and other existential uncertainties, he says. It puts tremendous pressure on people. Stress-producing situations can be immensely damaging to our health, especially when they persist over long periods of time with no reprieve in sight.
Dr. Peters is best known for the “Selfish Brain Theory,” which he developed together with an interdisciplinary team of scientists over a decade ago when researching the origins of obesity. In essence, the theory describes how the brain takes care of its own needs first when regulating energy distribution throughout the body. It is “selfish” in the sense that it always wins out in any competition for energy resources, at the expense of all other organs if necessary.
In times of stress, the brain spends particularly high amounts of energy, which requires an increase in food intake. During acute stress situations, a rapid spike in energy demand is natural and not harmful. It is different when stress is prolonged. Then it can become a chronic state and as such quite dangerous.
To shed some light on these dynamics, it is important to understand our body’s hormonal responses to stress. Energy in the body is regulated and mobilized by a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol selects the right type and amount of energy to meet the body’s demands when responding to a particular situation. Cortisol is also responsible for mobilizing energy by tapping into the body’s fat stores and moving it to where it’s most needed, primarily in the brain.
Studies in animals and humans have shown that heightened secretion of cortisol is associated with increased appetite, especially for sugar. In cases of enduring stress, this can stimulate food consumption to the point of overeating with all the detrimental consequences we are so familiar with. Moreover, too much cortisol can slow the metabolism, causing more weight gain than would normally occur. It can also affect fat distribution. Fat in the stomach area is considered a greater health risk than when it’s stored around the hips and thighs.
Ultimately, we will not be able to address the obesity crisis effectively if we continue to ignore the effects of chronic stress on our hormonal system, says Dr. Peters. Asking people to diet and force themselves to lose weight through deprivation can only make things worse. The solution is to de-stress our lives. This doesn’t mean more yoga and meditating, although that can help too, but mostly better socio-economic security and, as a result, peace of mind for more people.
As a point in case he cites a study conducted by the University of Chicago that compared two groups of single mothers from low-income neighborhoods. One group of women was moved to a more upscale area with safer streets, greater job opportunities and better schools, the other was left in place. Within a few years, most of the women who had moved away showed considerable improvement in their health, especially in reduction of diabetes and obesity. As their stress lessened, their well-being increased on every level.
If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading Can’t Lose Weight? t Could Be Stress
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.
It’s supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year.” But for many Americans the holiday season brings considerable stress, anxiety and even depression. What should be an opportunity to slow down, take a vacation, focus on family and friends, often turns into an annually reoccurring hassle that is more of a burden than a relief.
It’s no wonder that so many people have a sense of dread rather than excitement about the holidays and find themselves completely frazzled by the time it’s over, says Elisabeth Scott, a stress management expert at about.com. According to a poll she conducted, 80 percent of respondents said they were more stressed during the holidays than they would like to be.
“All of the baking and entertaining, shopping, wrapping, relatives we don’t often see (sometimes for good reason), and holiday cards can add up to a schedule packed with extra activity and responsibility. Pair that with high expectations that most of us carry for the season, as well as the debt that often lasts for months afterwards, and you have a recipe for stress,” says Scott.
Stress is also one of the reasons why so many people get sick around the holidays. It’s not just flu season that catches up with you, it’s also that the heightened stress weakens your immune system and makes you more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria. Studies have shown that when test participants were subjected to elevated stress levels, their bodies almost stopped producing infection-fighting antibodies and their natural defenses went down.
Stress can make you more susceptible to illnesses from colds and flu to chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, according to WebMD. Studies found that chronic stress can ‘age’ the immune system and potentially increase the risk of any number of serious health conditions, including cancer.
It doesn’t have to be this way. “This year can be different,” says Scott. “Try a combination of cutting back on activities, taking shortcuts, and adjusting your own expectations for the season. You can enjoy the holidays to the fullest without maxing out your energy, schedule and credit cards.”
Most importantly, you need to take care of your health, if you want to make it through the holidays in one piece. That starts with sound eating habits, regular exercise and getting enough rest.
Stress increases your need for nutrients because stress makes it more difficult for the body to digest properly, says Cindy Heroux, a registered dietitian and author of “The Manual That Should Have Come With Your Body” (Speaking of Wellness, 2003). “The more malnourished you become, the more severely stress will impact both your body and your mind,” she warns.
To prevent that from happening, health experts recommend eating plenty of antioxidants from fruits and vegetables to keep so-called “free radicals” at bay. Free radicals are reactive biological compounds that can damage DNA and suppress the immune system and are associated with many diseases. It is believed that stress plays a significant role in the increasing presence of these compounds.
Exercise, of course, is a great way to find relief from stress. “Exercise can decrease stress hormones like cortisol and increase endorphins, your body’s feel-good chemicals, giving your mood a natural boost. [It] can take your mind off your problems and either redirect it on the activity at hand or get you into a zen-like state,” says Scott.
In addition to following a balanced diet and exercise regimen, you also must set time aside for rest and relaxation. If necessary, you have to say ‘no’ and cut back on preparations or activities if they overwhelm you. “You don’t need to try every activity offered, go to every party thrown, or do everything the ‘Martha Stewart’ way in order to make your holiday special,” says Scott. Don’t become so busy that you no longer enjoy what is supposed to be fun and give you pleasure. Stick to what’s important to you, the things you would really miss if they weren’t included, and don’t measure yourself by other people’s expectations. After all, it should be a wonderful time for you, too.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.
Americans are overworked, stressed out, anxiety-ridden. Our fast-paced lifestyles are wearing us out. Persistent uncertainty about the economy is paralyzing us. Fear is a common response. Prescriptions for medications against anxiety and depression outrank for the first time all others, including drugs to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, according to the latest reports on spending for health care in the U.S.
In 1980, between two and four percent of Americans suffered from anxiety disorder, according to surveys conducted by the American Psychiatric Association on mental disorders. By 2009, follow-up studies showed a dramatic rise to 49.5 percent. That means 117 million U.S. citizens have been affected by disabling anxiety at least once in their lives.
What is happening? Why are we becoming suddenly a nation of nervous wrecks? Our lifestyle has certainly something to do with it. We don’t value free time and leisure as much as other cultures do. Two-hour lunches, midday siestas, weeks of paid vacations may be cherished customs elsewhere, but not here. We work longer hours with fewer breaks than almost any other developed nation. Even industrial powerhouses like Germany and France have 35-hour workweeks, but their productivity levels are among the highest in the world. On average, people there may have lower income rates, but their standard of living and quality of life are in many ways above the U.S.
Considering the price we pay in terms of our health and well-being, it may be time to question whether our traditional work ethic – which is essentially chasing the dime, no matter what – is still a worthy or even sustainable concept. In a recently published book, titled “How Much Is Enough,” (Other Press, 2012), the authors, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, a father-son team, argue that people who work too hard miss out on the “good life,” although that is supposedly the ultimate goal of their intense efforts, ideally becoming rich enough to enjoy a happy, carefree existence.
Skidelsky senior, a historian, and Skidelsky junior, a philosopher, cite the idea of the economist John Maynard Keynes that increasing per capita productivity through technological progress and other factors would eventually lead to a sharp decline in work hours, a theory that has clearly not been verified yet.
Yes, we have reduced our official workweek to 40 hours, but that is just the time we are required to spend in the office cubicle or at the assembly line. Long commutes, chores around the house, extracurricular activities for the kids, etc. cut deep into what’s left of the day. Doing nothing once in a while, lying in a hammock, listening to music, reading a book, painting a picture, playing an instrument, going on a trip – all that, it seems, has become an impossible dream. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Fortunately, the ability to change our way of life is not just stuff made up by academics. Forward-thinking companies like Google are well known for their efforts to enhance creativity by giving employees time off to pursue ideas of their own, regardless the outcome. Some of their most successful innovations have come out of that policy.
Much smaller enterprises are beginning to understand the advantages of allowing their people more space to play and explore as well. Jason Fried, co-founder and C.E.O. of 37signals, a software company, found that giving employees an entire month off to work on whatever they wanted was not only a great moral-booster but also resulted in an unprecedented burst of creativity, very much to the benefit of his business (see his article in the New York Times, 8/19/2012).
The all-American creed that hard work will make us successful may still linger for a long time to come. But eventually, we will have to accept our limits. Work alone does not guarantee success, as taking time off and pacing ourselves is not equivalent to laziness. There must be time for both to make the whole person.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “In Praise of Play.”
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.