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Stress in Everyday Life

Stress has never been adequately defined, beyond such vague generalizations as "Stress is how people respond to demands." Once stress became a popular concept, old terms such as worry, anxiety, fear, impatience, and anger gave way to stress and its offshoots, stressful, stress-related, and stressed-out. Further complicating matters is the fact that different people react to the same "stress" in unpredictable ways.

In fact according to some experts, the psychological concept of "stress" (as something originating in a person's mind) should be retired. The idea that emotional anguish arises from personality or individual flaws beclouds the fact that many physical and psychological problems come from social conditions not always with an individual's control.

Studies have consistently shown that people in high-strain jobs (that is, those at the bottom of the job ladder) have the highest rate of heart attacks, while those in active jobs have the lowest. Those in high-strain, low-echelon jobs also exhibited the highest levels of psychological stress (including depression and exhaustion), and they took the most medications for depression - while those at the top of the job ladder were by far the best-off in this category. In short, though "executive stress" exists, it's the bossed, not the bosses, who experience the most stress on the job.

Stereotypical "high stress" jobs such as manager, electrical engineer, and architect have proved not to be associated with health risks, because professionals get to make more of their own decision and thus feel more in control. Even when such risk factors as age, race, education, and smoking were factored into the equation, those in the bottom tenth of the job echelon turned out to be in the top tenth for stress. They had four to five times the risk of heart attack as those at the top tenth of the ladder whose jobs gave them a high sense of control.

The one personality trait that may be linked to heart disease is chronic hostility or cynicism. Several studies suggest that the chronically angry, suspicious, and mistrustful are twice as likely to have coronary artery blockages. Still, it's not clear what the connection is. Maybe cynical hostility somehow does physical damage. But perhaps mistrustful people adopt a "why bother" attitude and thus fail to take care of their health.

The idea that a positive attitude can help keep you from getting sick has been studied in individuals with cancer. Some researchers have suggested that patients with a positive attitude are likely to get well. Studies have shown that a "fighting spirit" as opposed to helplessness and hopelessness," may help women with breast cancer survive, but only if the disease has not spread. The bottom line is that most doctors believe that a strong desire to stay alive and well is an asset to anybody. In nothing else, it will give you the incentive to take care of yourself.

Being Supportive to Stressed Loved Ones

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Stress Support