July 7, 2008

Achieving Happiness: Make Exercise First Line of Defense Against Stress

By Tom Muha

Abby has been working extra hours for months in order to earn enough money to help pay for a family vacation this summer. Even though she loves her job, lately she's been finding herself becoming negative. For example, she's started looking at what annoys her - rather than what she appreciates - about her husband. This leads to arguments with him, which only increases her stress level and makes her more prone to negative reactions.

When the balance between work, love and play tilts too far toward our jobs for more than a couple of weeks, our bodies become stressed and start pumping out the chemicals that cause fight or flight reactions. Long-term stress leads to an accumulation of these chemicals, which compromises our well-being and causes us to feel emotionally frayed and physically fatigued.

People deceive themselves about their capacity to work hard for long periods of time. They tell themselves that the goal they have in mind will be worth the prolonged effort necessary to achieve it. At first, this is true. But the human body is designed for responding to immediate physical threats. But in today's world, the threats we face come from people's critical comments or the unrealistic demands of our jobs - neither of which require a physical reaction.

When we're working a lot of many extra hours, we don't have the time or energy left for regular exercise. But our bodies are built to move in order to burn off the stress chemicals. If those chemicals are allowed to accumulate, bad things will begin to happen to both our body and mind.

Psychological symptoms include persistent feelings of being overwhelmed, worried, edgy or irritable. Digestive difficulties such as stomachaches or diarrhea are stress signals, as are disturbances in sleep caused by an inability to get to or stay asleep. Our body's immune system becomes weakened when our body isn't working well and our mind is flooded with negative feelings. That's when we're prone to picking up all sorts of illnesses.

Instead of exercising, many people try to combat stress by soothing ourselves with substances: alcohol, food, tobacco or even prescription medications. While such tactics work in the short run, these pacifiers have well known long range consequences that only add another significant source of stress to life.

Over time substance use becomes abuse because our body's adaptation system requires ever increasing amounts of the substance to achieve the desired effect. This creates a downward spiral that ultimately compromises our body's ability to deal with stress. When we're hung over, carrying too much weight, out of breath, or suffering medication side-effects, it becomes more and more difficult to get ourselves to exercise.

The good news is that a small amount of exercise can produce big results. A half hour of walking, even if it's done in 3 10-minute stretches throughout the day, can burn off a substantial amount of stress chemicals. And starting with small time intervals makes beginning to exercise easier to do. The benefits can be immediate: improved sleep, reduced tension, and a better mood. If you can walk outdoors during daylight hours, the combination of sunlight and movement will boost your body's production of healthy chemicals.

It's hard to fight millions of years of biological evolution, so make exercise your first line of defense against stress. Once you've done that, there are other strategies that can help you cope with stress as well. Changing how you think about distressing events has also been proven to be remarkably effective.

Your reactions to stress are in large part shaped by your thought process, which is something that you learned early in life from people who may not have developed their own healthy coping mechanisms. But your mind can be retrained to respond more effectively to stressful events.

First, develop an awareness of how you've been thinking about negative events. Are your thoughts critical, blaming, guilty, fearful, withdrawn, or angry? Those thoughts will trap you in negativity because they all make the problem you're facing an issue you cannot solve. You can't change others, and avoiding troubles just allows them to grow. When you think this way, tell yourself, "Not helpful!"

Second, define the problem as a double-edged sword. It represents danger, but also an opportunity for improvement. ALWAYS ask yourself what the ultimate solution to the problem would look like. Once you can envision that positive outcome, come back to the present and determine the first step YOU are willing to take toward that destination.


Dr. Tom Muha is a psychologist practicing in Annapolis. To contact him, call 443-454-7274 or e-mail him at [email protected] happiness.com.

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