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January 18th, 2005

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05:51 pm - Stress and your health

I have always been of the opinion that the phrase "Don't worry, be happy" is not just good spiritual advice but has real practical health value. First item: this book, recently published in Germany. Although coached in the weird New Age-y style that likes to use terms and just assume that everybody knows what they mean, in this case "life energy", the book's main point is that people who overdo exercise may be shortening their own lives. In other words, people who take it easy live longer. Second item: in a recent issue of TIME magazine, a cover article (which I am unfortuanately unable to link to) described the way in which a positive outlook can extend your lifespan. Elsewhere in the same issue is an article about how human are genetically predisposed toward happiness. To me all of these stories, and a plethora of others that I don't have links to off the top of my head, are part of the same concept: people are much better off if they can just learn to relax and not take things so seriously.

What are the leading causes of death in the United States? According to the CDC, number one is heart attacks and number three is strokes. Both of these conditions include stress as a major contributing factor, along with of course genetic predisposition, diet, etc. By the same token, almost all major mental disorders other than those present from birth can be triggered or at least aggravated by stressful experiences. This includes important characteristic disorders of our society such as schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa. In a more general sense, the immune system that protects our bodies from the enormous number of pathogens which constantly surround us loses its effectiveness when we are stressed out. Stress, including emotional stess, diverts our body's finite supply of chemical energy to the autonomic responses that are the body's automatic reaction to being in a stressful situation so that there is less to power things like routine immune and maintainance activities.

This is not to say that failing to worry is absolutely the most safe thing. Some basic precautions are a necessary response to the complexities of our society: if you take things so easy that you have unprotected sex with everyone who is willing eventually you will contract a fatal disease. But what I am saying is that a basic amount of self control, an understanding that not everything is a big deal, an ability to look on the bright side most of the time, and an overall level of coolness are the best way to make your life better in a thousand tiny ways. This is not just about health. Its about relationships, school, work, family, and life in general.

I really ought to start keeping track of these articles better so I can fill my commentary with useful links.

(Co-posted to my personal journal, among others.)

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