Sunday, March 11, 2007

Stress - the Product of American Ambition

Stress can be a good thing, if taken in measure and balanced out properly. In my opinion, however, the average American has way too much stress in their daily lives.

In its early days, the U.S. was an agrarian, slower-paced nation. But the zeal to go out on conquer new frontiers was always there. The rise of mass production and technology combined with our competitive, capitalist spirit to transform our nation almost overnight into a busy, fast-paced culture. The drive to make more money and explore new possibilities is what made the U.S. one of the wealthiest nations in the world. But at what price to our citizens’ health did this wealth come?

The average American gets 10 vacation days and 5 sick days per year. That is only 15 days out of 365, not including the rare national holidays. Two weeks is hardly enough to go to Europe and deal with jet lag! And if you do take a trip like that, you can forget going to your family reunion or any other family function during the holidays. And we wonder why Americans have high blood pressure, insomnia, and other stress-related illnesses!

The link between heart disease and stress has been known for quite a while. Stress hormone levels rise in proportion to the amount of stress a person is under. That hormone, if not offset by exercise, can cause the artery walls to thicken and restrict oxygen and blood supply to the heart. Heart attacks caused by stress are common. Furthermore, heart disease is the number one killer of Americans! While diet and lifestyle have a lot to do with that, stress combined with those factors is a recipe for heart disease.

Stress also causes premature aging, headaches, and ulcers; aggravates irritable bowel syndrome; suppresses the immune system; causes flare-ups in people who have autoimmune problems such as rheumatoid arthritis; and even possibly causes cancer according to some studies. Adults who have had chicken pox as children can get shingles, a very painful, slow-healing sickness, that occurs when suppressed immunity combines with high levels of stress.

Don’t forget the psychological problems caused by stress. Anxiety, depression, and insomnia are all directly linked to high stress levels. Of course, these psychological problems directly affect physical health, and can impact behavior dramatically. High stress goes hand-in-hand with overwork. People tend to drink and smoke more heavily when they are stressed or working too much. They can suffer from sleepless nights and poor diet caused by the lack of time to prepare healthy meals. Exercise is anything but a priority. Who has time to exercise during a 40-hour work week combined with kids and housework? Who has time to exercise during a 50 or 60-hour work week alone?

People with high stress levels eventually get burned out and lose focus to the point where they literally cannot handle any more work. In our overworked, overstressed society, companies care so much about meeting the quota that they forget that by overworking their employees, they are ultimately causing them to become unproductive. How much more could that average employee get done if they had some balance to their life?

If companies were to realize just how much damage ridiculous hours can cause, and then do something about it, I think our wealthy society would actually become wealthier and healthier too! People who get a better night’s sleep, who are physically fit, and are more relaxed overall can focus better and get more work done in less time! Think of how much less we would spend in medical expenses related to stress. It wouldn’t be a big sacrifice to give our employees a break. Give them a shorter work day by an hour a couple of days per week so they can exercise, play with their kids, or just get some fresh air. Allow an extra week of vacation so they can go someplace far away and see their family during the holidays! Why can’t we take 4 weeks vacation a year like Europeans do? They are just as productive as we are!

Hopefully people will realize the harmful effects of stress and maybe one day do something about it. Until then, all I can say is that is up to us to make stress-relief a priority. Make time for exercise, eating right, and getting some fresh air. Stop, slow down, and take a walk. Breathe deep. Listen to some classical music, or go to yoga classes. It is up to us!

** Oh, and I must put my 2 cents in as a law student…Law professors, do you really need to stress us out so much?? Can’t you just give us enough of a break so we can at least make doctor’s appointments?? So many law students are unhealthy and suffer the detrimental effects stress and psychological games imposed on them by professors. Is that really necessary to make us learn?? With less stress, we may actually learn more because we are healthy, get enough sleep, and can focus on our studies better!!! ***

For info. on the harmful impact of stress:

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