Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Biggest Killer in our Modern World. Stress.

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One question that weighed heavily on my mind in the few days after being told I had leukemia, was "What had caused it all?"

When we asked our doctors that very question, all he could do was shrug his shoulders and tell us "Bad luck..."

Apparently there's no one solid pathway that can explain how people get a lot of cancers - there isn't an explanation for many other diseases too for that matter.

I, through how I dealt with my condition mentally, hadn't really given it too much thought though. I had a disease to deal with - it didn't matter to me how I'd gotten it after I changed my attitude toward it all. 
All that mattered to me was how it could be treated.

But in hindsight, I feel I know exactly what caused my sickness.

Stress.

It's something we've become accustomed to - especially in the last 10 - 20 years. It's become part of life that everyone has to deal with. But it doesn't have to be. In fact it shouldn't be.

It's killing people.

Both physical and emotional stress equally have a range of effects on the body that have dangerous repercussions that people underestimate or consider to be manageable when it isn't.

It can cause hypertension, depression, nausea, loss of sex drive even! And over a longer time frame of a few weeks or months it drastically increases your body's secretions of cortisol and adrenaline, which gives you symptoms of insomnia, weight gain and moodiness,  and can even, as I believe occurred in me, cause cancer or expose you to other dangerous diseases from the effects it has on slowly breaking down your body's cells and immune system!

You may think it's fine to throw an all-nighter or two before an exam period or as you're finishing off a report for the boss, you may think it's okay to be overwhelmed by all your struggles every now and then as long as you keep functioning, you may think it's fine to hold all your emotions in until you release it all on people you love and care about.

It's not.

It's not only endangering your life and only making you unhappy.

But there is good news.

It may be hard to see straight away, but you do have a choice on how you let stress impact your life. More often than not it's our own selves that create it. And if you see this from another perspective, it also means that we do have the propensity and the power to change ourselves and our lifestyle and take away that stress from our lives.
***

Let me take you back to my life in the months of December 2010 - May 2011. It was summer holidays during the first few months of that period, a time where kids would be running outside in the beautiful weather, having fun playing cricket or footy with the other kids down the street or heading off to the local pool for a dip.

What I was doing, though, was far from that.

You see, it was my year 12, my final year of high school, the year before I entered university. I had to sit the HSC, an examination that would determine what course I would get into for university - something that would probably decide my career path for life.

I wanted to do medicine. Really badly. In my eyes, it was one of the most noble professions where you got to deal directly with people and help them in their times of need while also being able to provide well for yourself and your family in the future. But as many of you know, it's a challenging course, and the hardest thing about it is just getting a seat.

So unlike those other kids who got to run around and enjoy their holidays, I spent mine locked up in my room studying as hard as I could.

You see, my philosophy, my plan of attack, was to study hard and long during my holiday periods and learn everything I needed to for the whole year then - in order to allow me to only focus on preparing for exams while everyone else would still be learning content. 
A good idea, I know, but the way I did it was just damn right unhealthy.

I was, months away from any assessments, pulling off all-nighters, powering through textbook after textbook in Maths, writing up essay after essay for English and learning concept after concept for my sciences. I was studying at least 16 hours a day! Add to this travel times to and from tutoring institutions, meal times and time for other necessities, and time spent with family on the odd occasion, and that left around an average of 4 - 6 hours of sleep per night. And that's with close to no exercise and a bad diet too.

And I maintained that for a good 2 months.

It seems wreckless and stupid looking back. That's because it was wreckless and stupid...  

But you see this kind of attitude in people everywhere today. In our 21st century lifestyles, often we prioritise our jobs, our responsibilities, our studies over our health, relationships, families and friends. The effects of the stress we put on ourselves for these aspects of our life eats away at us, whether we admit it or not - and the effects may not be seen for months, even years. 

Just looking at our politicians and leaders changing of our years is a prime example of how stress affects us! Barack Obama, when he got elected, looked a young, vibrant leader literally oozing with enthusiasm and hope. Just have a glance at the photos before and you can see the impacts of stress on the body. 


            

 Left: Obama before taking office. Right; Obama 4 years later after his first term.

The same thing has happened all around the world actually. In my own country, Australia, our current Prime Minister has changed just as much in just as short a time period too.









Left: Kevin Rudd campaigning in late '07. Right - Kevin Rudd early in 2013.

These are literal snapshots of the life-draining effects stress has on the human body. Our body is designed to be able to recover from the stresses of daily life. But when you compound it all up and do it for days, months or even years on end like many today do - things will end up going wrong in the body.

But it doesn't just happen to our politicians. 

In our modern, rat-race society I see people all around me, every day, working themselves to excessive limits, often above and beyond the call of duty, in order to make a few extra bucks, or progress in their careers or to please their boss. 

Sometimes, people have to do it out of necessity. In fact, 4/5ths of the world have no option but to stress themselves out in order to just put food on the table for their family! What I find almost as sad as that fact though is the fact that the remaining 1/5 often put that stress onto themselves.

I see it in my family. My mother - especially when she was studying for her MBA and working at the same time - would often stay up to 12 or 1am at night working on projects for clients for weeks on end. How she manages to look so young and keep so healthy is beyond me. Probably her immaculate diet to be honest.

My uncle, her younger brother, hasn't handled it as well. He works as a financial consultant and had put in the hard work and done well to get into, and achieve highly, in a very prestigious university in a very challenging course. Thus he was headhunted almost straight out of university and works contracts end on end for big companies.

Yet though he is successful, he works his butt off. Whenever I call him or he calls us, he sounds so tired. If he does come over on the odd occasion - he'd fall asleep - right there on the ground or on the chair he was sitting on, just exhausted from day after day of constantly overworking himself. He's only 37 years of age, and he's already got hair as white as Santa Claus with deep wrinkles on his brow when a few years ago he had the looks of a man in his mid 20s.

I drew the short straw perhaps - I managed to harm myself enough to get a life threatening disease so early in life. It may not have been the stress only that contributed to my cancer - there may have been other factors, who knows. But I do know for a fact that stress DID play a major part in it developing.

But I can't go back and change that now.

What I can do is vow to not allow myself, ever again, to cause myself that much harm again. 
I'll vow to myself that I will always take time out for myself, eat healthy, exercise or at the very least - get enough sleep - no matter how many exams or how many night-shifts I may have to work in the future.

And to you, my readers, who may be going through, or may end up going through stressful events in the future, let me ask you one question. 

Why wait until you've got cancer, or heart failure, or peptic ulcers to change your lifestyle, habits and attitude in order to make your own life easier, happier and healthier?

Even if you don't think you have a problem right now - or if you think you can handle it - just take a step back and examine your life and ask yourself if there's anything you can do to make it less stressful. Ask yourself why you have to take on such a huge workload when you haven't seen your family awake in a week. Understand that though there will be times or occasions when you can't help but stress out about things, there will always be another option, another, easier, way to do it - or at the very least - that you can give yourself a little break afterwards to allow your body to rest.

You can do it from today! You don't have to quit your job, or even make huge changes to do this! 
The changes you make may be just to spend a half-hour a day going for a walk around the local park with your kids, or to maybe start your studies a little earlier and to pace yourself, or to possibly even reduce your workload if needs be.

You can't change yourself overnight.
 But you can always do little things to make your life less stressful.

The next time you're stuck in traffic, getting late for work, instead of getting angry at the car in-front of you for not moving quick enough in the queue of traffic, take a little step back and relax. Your worrying won't be able to push the thousands of cars ahead of you forward and speeding is only going to endanger yourself or your fellow drivers, so why do it? Just put on some nice music and relax and think about being late when you get there.

Next time you're worrying before entering an exam or worrying whether your proposal or report will be shut down by your boss - just take a step back and ask yourself why? In the end, you've done what you have done in your preparation and by worrying, all you're doing is making yourself more prone to forget things out of panic when in the actual exam or just making yourself unhappy over something you can't control!

I guarantee you that by taking a step back, analysing yourself and questioning your doubts and worries, by seeing another way to look at your situation and by accounting and planning for obstacles in your path that may increase your stress, you WILL save you a lot of pain, and will be happier and healthier in life.

And if you're blessed enough to be able to be able to, you owe it to YOURSELF to allow yourself the healthiest, happiest, life possible.

I'll leave with this message from the words of the immortal Bob Marley.

"In every life we have some trouble, but when you worry you make it double!"

"Don't worry, be happy."

Any stresses you may have, any problems that are confounding you at the moment - do post them in the comments below (you can do so anonymously) and I'll help you to reduce them if I can.

Remember - also - that emotional stress is just as dangerous as physical stress in its impacts of the body - and often more dangerous because it can last for a long time and hence cause more damage to your body without you even knowing you are! So don't ignore that either! The first, often hardest thing to do is talk about it.
Once you're past that though, I'm sure you can beat it. 

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