The six leading causes of death; heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide are linked to chronic stress. It is time to get rid of it. Dr. Ashwin Mehta, can see Government Cut, the cruise ship port and AmericanAirlines Arena from his balcony on the 49th floor.
He checks out the view then lays his mat on the tile and begins his daily yoga routine. For 20 minutes he will relax in a mind/body workout that will allow him cope with the stress of being the medical director for Integrative Medicine at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. A bit north in Lighthouse Point; Dr. Alexander G. Justicz eases his stress by going to the beach where he rides his kiteboard. He is always looking forward to being on the water.
“I am a sucker for kiteboarding,” says Justicz, a cardiac surgeon at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale. He says that being on the beach helps him mix up his exercise routine which he finds is important for controlling stress.
“Stress in the 21st century is a huge problem for men,” he said.
The body deals well with acute stress such as a traffic accident or being chased by a dog by activating the sympathetic nervous system which sets the body up for a “fight or flight” response that helps individuals escape and be safe.
This process releases hormones that increase the heart rate; cause rapid, shallow breathing; constrict blood vessels supplying digestive organs and tighten muscles.
When the danger is gone, the body halts its “fight or flight” mode and starts to “rest and digest,” Mehta explains. Unfortunately, for many individuals the pendulum does not swing and stress becomes chronic.
From traffic on I-95, to a favorite shirt that is damaged at the cleaners or a misplaced child support check to an argument with the spouse — this accumulates becoming a large amount of daily anxiety.
According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. Greater than 75 percent of all doctor office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
Chronic stress can affect your brain, suppress your thyroid, cause blood sugar imbalances, lessen bone density and muscle tissue, raise blood pressure, reduce your immunity and ability to heal and increase fat deposits around your abdomen that are associated with heart attacks, strokes and elevated “bad” cholesterol.
Sameet Kumar begins his day comfortably seated on the floor of his bedroom. He calmly begins belly breathing and mindful meditation that assist him in relaxing.
“Meditation actually alters how the brain reacts to stress,” stated Kumar, a clinical psychologist at Memorial Cancer Institute and the author of The Mindful Path Through Worry and Rumination (New Harbinger Publications, 2010).
Kumar made changes regarding his own stress once his first child was born.
“I want to be as healthy as I can for as long as I can so I can see my children grow up,” he said.
It is unfortunate that the wake-up call for most individuals comes in the emergency room following a heart attack or hypertensive crisis at which time they may also be diagnosed with uncontrolled diabetes.
“You realize all this stuff has been going on for a long time. It just hasn’t been treated,” said Kumar.
Handling chronic stress can start with something as simple as getting perspective on your situation.
“Take a step back and circle the bait,” Justicz suggests.
Justicz also recommends his patients see a doctor about any underlying medical issues.
“I think that it’s a stress relief if you address the things you can. It makes it easier to not worry about the things you can’t,” he says.
Also consider adding a mind/body practice to your daily routine. Other than yoga and meditation; other suggestions include: biofeedback, writing in a journal, praying, guided imagery, creative visualization and breathing exercises.
Kumar practices mindful meditation in the morning and in the evening. It is generally recommended for 20 to 30 minutes two times per day. It is a time commitment, but he has discovered calms him and makes him feel sharper and more productive.
Aerobic exercise is also important in dealing with stress. It gets the blood moving, improves the cardiovascular system, rejuvenates the body with plenty of fresh oxygen and helps sleep.
Aerobics can also help mitigate the adverse effects of prolonged stress and inflammation on the immune system, heart and lungs.
Diet is also important for stress relief because your body associates stress with famine.
“It’s built into your system,” says Kumar.
If the body goes into starvation mode when stressed it produces cortisol because it thinks it’s going to starve. In turn, this hormone causes you to crave fat and sugar and store fat around the belly.
“And that belly fat is a tremendous risk factor for diabetes and heart disease in men,” says Kumar.
The majority of the doctors we spoke to suggest a Mediterranean diet based on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, seeds and nuts, legumes and beans, olive oil and seafood.
“It’s a diet that runs counter to the kinds of things you crave when you are feeling stressed,” Kumar says.
Giving the body all the building blocks it needs to heal itself.
Last but not least; to manage stress in your life, help your fellow man. By doing so the body produces the hormone oxytocin which boosts trust and empathy and decreases stress and anxiety.
“Compassion and some sort of community service are very important components of mitigating stress,” Mehta says.
He serves on the board of directors at Mindful Kids Miami, which is bringing mindfulness to children in schools and pediatric hospitals, teaches yoga and honors some sage advice.
“So many grandmas told us to say our prayers and count our blessings before going to sleep. If you really want the essence of stress management, it was all in your grandmother’s advice,” Mehta says.