It's an honor to be blogging at Psychology Today, and I would like to begin this series with a topic that I believe is central to the problems facing our world today: Stress.
Today marks the U.S. release of my book, Stress Pandemic: The Lifestyle Solution (available at Barnes & Noble, Barnes & Noble online, Amazon.com, and independent bookstores). The title is a reference to what I see as the increasingly harmful impact stress is taking on our lives. As we know, stress is a fact of human life, but the pandemic levels of stress, stress-related diseases, and lifestyle diseases that we are seeing today are abnormal by historical standards and certainly not desirable. Furthermore, I believe that greater awareness of the potentially serious consequences of high levels of stress, and of tools that can equip us to deal more effectively with stress, are necessary in today’s society.
I’ve experienced firsthand the dangers of unchecked stress. In 1998 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a result of years of imbalance in my lifestyle and my stress levels. Later that year, I experienced a full nervous breakdown and lost my rights as a New Zealand citizen. It would take two years of intense research, and sweeping changes in my life, to achieve a full recovery and free myself from my condition. It was the devastation of that episode, its ramifications through the rest of my life, and my recognition of the growing problem of stress that compelled me to begin warning others of lifestyle and stress imbalances. I wished that someone had warned me before I went over the edge, and I hoped I could do the same for others.
Stress negatively impacts how we experience our lives by preventing us from living in a state of contentment and fulfillment. Notice for yourself how difficult it is to feel content while you are managing some degree of stress. Much of the stress in our lives, however, is not visible. It may be relatively insignificant on a conscious level, and although it limits the fullness to which we can live, we don’t notice it or recognize it as a problem. Often, it is only when the grip of stress manifests in specific symptoms that stress becomes visible to us. It is at this stage that people may experience substantial physical consequences from prolonged stress, as chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in the body. It can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system (or, alternatively, lead to autoimmune diseases), worsen allergies, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, impair fertility, and accelerate the aging process. Stress, and the unhealthy lifestyle choices that often follow from stress and a lack of awareness, can also be looked upon as a major factor in “lifestyle diseases.” The World Health Organization reports that lifestyle diseases now account for 63 percent of global deaths based on its estimates for 2008.
Beyond these physical stress-related complications, stress is also the basic foundation of many psychological imbalances. With prolonged and high levels of stress, conditions of the mind may start to arise beginning in some form of anxiety or depression that can grow into serious mental illness. I believe there is a clear and strong link between stress in one’s life and the appearance or triggering of mind conditions. In my experience and research, I have seen that psychological disharmony (stress) can lead to psychological imbalance (mental illness) over time, and the growing prevalence of mental illness in the world is evidence of the increasing toll that stress is taking on our lives. For example, the National Institute of Mental Health has estimated that 26.2 percent of Americans age eighteen and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. In light of this situation, it is necessary for us as a society to recognize and value the paramount importance of mind wellness. As I often find myself saying, when given a choice, prevention is preferable to recovery.
Whether it’s the logistical pressure we feel in trying to organize our busy lives and fulfill duties and obligations each day, or whether it’s stress in the emotional realm of fear, worry, anxiety, regret, guilt, confusion, and anger, stress takes its toll on our mind and body. In today’s world, most of us, to some degree, deal with a sense of feeling overwhelmed by daily responsibilities and challenges, knowing that we can’t possibly accomplish everything that we need to get done. Global urbanization and the growth of technology have created a world in which access to information has become an obligation and a necessity. People are now held accountable for their actions and whereabouts at all times, and their privacy is jeopardized in ways that were never before possible. We have been invaded by technology on all fronts to the point where we never experience true downtime anymore. Competition in today’s world is fierce, and what was once enjoyable becomes infused with a sense of fear and urgency and is thus transformed into “work” and a task to be dispensed with. We encounter stress in all domains of our lives from relationships to finances, and what’s more, we are continually under assault on a physical level, too, so loaded is our environment with never-before-seen levels of toxicity. In short, the relentless pace and complexity of modern life has led us to forsake our privacy and our ability to live fully in the present moment. While stress is present in any life to varying degrees, it is now growing into a problem of serious importance.
In this series I plan to outline some of the insights into stress, and our responses to it, that enabled me to free myself and turn my life around. In the midst of the growing stress pandemic, awareness of the dangers of stress—and of the importance of mind wellness—is crucial to our well-being.