Reducing stress is the best medicine for preventing a host of major diseases

In a recent article in The Atlantic[1], the writer pointed out that “Dean Ornish, a physician-researcher at the University of California…has been showing in studies for more than three decades that diet, exercise, and stress reduction can do a better job of preventing, slowing, and even reversing heart disease than most drugs and surgical procedures.”  The same case was made for treating cancer, diabetes, and a number of other expensive, life-threatening diseases with these non-medical alternative protocols.  The writer went on to say, “Relieving patient stress, in particular, is looking more and more important,” according to Nobel laureate biologist Elizabeth Blackburn.

The problem we have there is that the professionals who are hired to take care of the problem with stress aren’t doing a very good job of it.  A good current example of their ineptitude can be found in today’s military.  The Christian Science Monitor reported that the suicide rate among active-duty soldiers “hit an all-time high in 2011.”  A couple of years ago CNN was discussing stress-related problems in the military and the network’s very credentialed “expert” on stress suggested hot baths, warm milk, and confiding your fears to someone you love as remedies for dealing with stress.  Of course he didn’t reveal how that prescription could be filled in a desert foxhole.

If you think of yourself as a machine, which you are, really, there are three main factors that govern how well and how long your motor will run.  One is the fuel you use, which is your food.  Eating junk food and even eating mostly highly processed cooked food is like putting kerosene in the gas tank of your family car.  Another is the environment in which you operate your machine.  Living in a noisy, polluted city where you spend two hours per day in traffic, drinking toxic water that was earlier flushed down somebody else’s toilet, and failing to take time out for healthy exercise and peaceful relaxation is like running your family car through swamps, deserts, and fields full of landmines.

Finally, there are the demands you place on your physical, mental, and spiritual machine.  When you spend every day of the week trying to achieve such impossible goals as doing a week’s work in one day, longing to be somewhere else that you’re not, and pleasing every person that you encounter, you’re really doing serious damage to yourself.  That’s like putting your car in low gear, pressing the accelerator to the floor and, at the same time, holding the brake as tight as you can.  Something’s got to give, right?

As you can learn from other articles on this blog, the source of all stress is retaining in your own mind one or more impossible goals.  An impossible goal is one that cannot be achieved because of time, space, or circumstances.  You can’t do anything yesterday.  You can’t be working in your office now and also be fishing with your buddies in Florida.  And you cannot achieve goals for anybody but yourself.  When you set the goal for other people to like you, be pleased with what you do, or even conform to your standard of morality and ethics, you’re setting yourself up for stress.

Your choice of food, lifestyle, and stress management techniques will determine whether you will be healthy or diseased, happy and productive or depressed and stagnant, and enjoying a long, joyful life or dying before you even get to retire.

These factors tend to be interdependent.  Smart food choices improve your body chemistry which, in turn, makes you feel more like taking a brisk walk every day.  That, in turn, makes it easier to cancel those impossible goals and reduce your stress level.  Improvement of any one factor has a positive impact on the others.

The best argument against maintaining impossible goals is that they’re stupid.  If you saw a guy trying to lift Stone Mountain, you’d think he was stupid, wouldn’t you?  Why?  Because it’s an impossible goal.  So, when some jerk almost runs you off the road and you get red in the face, shake your fist and give him a good cussing out, even though he’s already half a mile down the road, is that any less stupid?  Not really.  You’re trying to set and achieve the goal for that reckless driver to be respectful of your safety and your territory.  That’s an impossible goal – just as impossible as trying to lift a mountain with your bare hands.

What’s really stupid about maintaining goals that cannot be achieved is it saps precious energy and resources that could be used to achieve possible and worthwhile goals.  In the above example, which would be the wiser goal – to get even symbolically with an inconsiderate jerk or get to your destination safely and in a good frame of mind to achieve your mission there?

It’s not easy to get rid of old habits.  With so many frustrated, drunk, doped-up, crazy, and outright criminal people on the road nowadays, you’d be very wise not to provoke a road-rage incident that could turn you, and perhaps your family, into a sad statistic.  As reported almost daily in the media, if you even honk your horn at the wrong person, you might find bullets flying through your windshield.  Get into an aggressive tail-gating, bird-shooting battle with a nut case and the odds against getting home in one piece go way down.

There’s a little game I like to play to get my mindset right when I take off on one of my journeys.  I say to myself, “What’s the game?  To get to my destination safely.  How do I play?  Avoid all contact with opposing players.”  Tailgaters are opposing players.  They are not cooperating with my goal to get me home in one piece.  So I make every non-hostile effort to help them pass.  If a driver cuts too close into my lane, I back off to a safe distance.  I also give the system a little positive twist by actually accommodating other drivers who are trying to get into my lane of slow traffic from a side road or another lane.  It’s interesting then to watch that driver’s behavior.  More often than not, he or she will pass on that courtesy to another driver.  Who knows – maybe a small gesture like that can even connect the dots to prevent a serious accident that day.

Learning to deal rationally with small potentially stressful situations builds up your skill and makes it possible for you then to cope with the big ones that we all face sooner or later.  Anytime you start feeling angry, frustrated, or depressed, you’re stressed.  Take a deep breath and ask yourself what impossible goal you’re trying to achieve?  Once you’ve identified it, cancel it.  If the end result is something important to you, then reset the goal with possible parameters.

For example, if a traffic jam makes it impossible for you to get to an important meeting on time, set the goal to do the next best thing.  Tell yourself that it is your goal to arrive at your destination as quickly as you can safely get there.  Call with an apology.  Ask an associate to stand in for you until you can make it.  Even if you miss out on a great opportunity by being late, which makes more sense – cancelling the impossible goal to be there on time or stroking out on the freeway?

The right answer to this question was poignantly expressed by Marcel the Shell, a little cartoon character who was introduced on the Internet in 2011.  Marcel’s “car” is a bug whose destination is a bit unpredictable.  So, easygoing Marcel says that when your car’s a bug, “Really, what you just have to want to do is take a ride.”

That’s all we’re doing in this life – just taking a ride on an uncontrollable bug.  You can make that ride a joy or a living hell.  It’s your choice.  To gain a full understanding of this concept, practice by identifying and cancelling the impossible goals that create the little frustrations that pop up every day.  If your coffee is too cold, instead of fretting about it, pop some ice in it and enjoy an iced coffee.  As you learn to find joy wherever your bug takes you on your daily ride, then you’ll be ready when a bigger challenge, such as being in a serious accident, losing a job, or losing a mate, presents itself.

[1] The Atlantic, “The triumph of new-age medicine” by David H. Freedman, July/August 2011

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