Stress, Chronic Disease, and the Power of a Hug

10 tips to stress less

What’s your biggest stress trigger? In a recent conversation with friends, a few of us pointed to time pressures. When I have to navigate between several appointments, my kids’ schedules, and attempt to “get stuff done” in between, I feel stressed. Unfortunately, that describes my typical day. So like so many of us, I experience chronic stress.

Unlike situational or social stress, caused by life changes such as divorce, relocation, death of a loved one, chronic stress is ongoing and so can take a real toll on our bodies and minds.

According to the Yale Stress Center, “There is evidence to show that stress and adversity promotes negative thinking, anxiety, bad habits and other poor lifestyle choices by disrupting brain function related to self-control, decision-making, healthy desire and mood. Chronic stress and adversity can also disrupt normal cardiac, metabolic and immune function thereby increasing the risk of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, infections and some types of cancers.”

How does stress contribute to chronic disease?

For one, stressed-out people tend to slack off on self-care with less sleep, poor food choices, exercising less, and smoking and drinking more. Stress also triggers a flood of hormones into your system, including adrenaline and cortisol that give you that fight-or-flight feeling. But when you’re body is constantly under stress, overexposure to stress hormones (known as allostatic load) leads to an increased risk of all kinds of health problems including depression, digestive problems, heart disease, obesity (more fat around the waist), and memory issues. It’s also been linked to aging, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.

Our bodies own stress countering hormone – Oxytocin

I don't need Therapy, I need a hug.Stanford health psychologist, and the speaker in the excellent TED talk below, Kelly McGonigal, PhD shares an important insights into stress resilience. It’s all  reaching out to others for support when we feel stressed. Our bodies make this easier, since the package of stress hormones our bodies release contains the cuddle hormone, oxytocin. McGonigal explains, “Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.” The stress response, if we heed it’s call, can actually strengthen human connections, compassion and empathy.

McGonigal cites another study that found whether or not a person believes stress is harmful to their bodies makes a marked difference in the way their bodies react.  Typically the heart rate goes up and blood vessels constrict, but when one views stress as a helpful biological response, your body readying itself for a challenge, the blood vessels remain open and relaxed, actually mimicking the body’s response to joy and courage. She calls this “the biology of courage.”

Next time you’re late for a meeting, breathe deeply, see your stress as a normal biological response, extend some compassion to yourself, and when it’s appropriate, reach out to others for some strength and caring.

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Smarts and Stamina Online ProgramThere’s a lot more great information on the interworking of neurochemicals like oxytocin and cortisol. Explore them with me in my upcoming wellness workshop – Safeguarding Your Health: Disease Prevention through Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise. Sign up before April 1, 2014 for an early-bird discount!



Carnegie Mellon University ( Stress Contributes to Range of Chronic Diseases, Carnegie Mellon Psychologist Says (full findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association). Healthy Lifestyle: Stress Management: Chronic Stress puts your Health at Risk.

The New York Times. The Heavy Cost Of Chronic Stress. December 17, 2002. by Erica Goode.

Yale Stress Center


Procrastination – It’s Tax Time, After All

taxesIt’s tax season. Uhg! In fact, April 15 is 28 days away. If you’re anything like me, there’s some procrastination in your financial department. I thought I’d offer some strategies to help you get off your duff.

My first tactic involves scheduling, physically putting on my calendar, a three-hour block to organize information for the accountant. I intentionally targeted the end of the week, so I could spend the first few days clearing my desk. I wanted a clean desk, and as few reasons as possible why Friday just wasn’t going to be tax day after all.

Yet even when that morning arrived, my head flooded with excuses. I felt as if I was reluctantly trudging up hill and wanted more than anything to run back to the bottom. I HATE DOING MY TAXES! No, in fact doing them isn’t half as bad as the long process of making myself sit down to the task.

When I finally settled in to my desk last week, sure enough I procrastinated with a quick check of my email, when what did I discover but the following quote with my name written all over it!

Excuses are monuments of nothingness, which build bridges to nowhere,and those who use those tools of incompetence are masters of nothingness. – unknown

Yep, checking Facebook is indeed a bridge to nowhere.

When there’s something on our to do list that is even a little distasteful, excuses have a field day. The same phenomenon can crop up with exercising (my knees hurt), or indulging in sweets (but it’s his birthday).

© Mary Kate McDevitt 2013

© Mary Kate McDevitt 2013

Let’s face it, there will ALWAYS be something we’d rather be doing. Learn to spot those excuses, as they inevitably take over our best-laid plans. See them for what they are – distractions. Though they may seem quite welcome at the time, you can more easily say “no” if you recognize them for what they are. They lose a little of their power this way. You may even be able to catch yourself searching for that “but” as a way to relieve the tension in your mind.

Finally, another tactic I use to counter the dread of tax time is the reminder that it feels great to get things done. I will be so very happy to send that packet off to the accountant, and archive the 2013 file. How will I celebrate when my mission is accomplished? Well, I guess that depends on whether I’ll be getting a refund.

7 Health Promoting Tips

Eat at Least 2 Meals per Day at Home – Bringing Taco Bell takeout home to eat it doesn’t count! Yeah, it requires some planning, shopping, and maybe a little creativity, but if you take your health seriously, the benefits are worth it.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. Aristotle

Practice Listening – How often do you find yourself offering advice, suggestions, or simply trying to fix someone else’s problems? One of the greatest gifts we can give others is our time and attention. Be generous with your ears, not your mouth. Your relationships will prosper.

Skip the Morning Juice – Fruit juice contains a big dose of sugar. Drinking it first thing in the morning sets up our taste buds to want more sugar throughout the day. If you enjoy juicing, add lemons, greens, or other vegetables to boost the nutrition and balance out the sugar. Or start the day off with a glass of water, plus coffee or tea if you drink them.

Take a Regular Time Out – Find a moment each day to center yourself. Sit still, close your eyes, and take 5 deep breaths. Make it a habit to treat yourself to a quick breather.

Take the Stairs – It’s such a simple but powerful habit. Commit to doing it for one week, then another. You’ll be surprised how quickly the benefits to your muscles (especially your heart) add up.

Allow Enough Time to Reach your Destination – Being late causes stress. Resist the urge to get one more thing accomplished before you head out the door. Leave five minutes before you normally would, and if you arrive early, check your email, or better yet, take five deep breaths.

Eliminate at Least one Processed Food you Regular Diet –  It might be potato chips, diet soda, sugary breakfast cereals, or a muffin from Starbucks. Take note of the amount of prepared and processed foods you consume. Then find a fresh, whole-food alternative to at least one of them.

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Safeguarding Your Health: Disease Prevention through Sleep, Food, Mood and ExerciseLearn more about how building healthy habits around sleep, food, mood and exercise will strengthen your body and mind against chronic diseases. My online workshop begins April 24th. Sign up today to take advantage of the early bird discount.

How to be a Savvy Consumer of Health Information

The Well Blog of The New York Times published an article earlier this week titled, “Is Breast-Feeding Really Better?” Wow, I thought this issue was pretty much put to bed. The breast is best, right? But like all newspapers, The New York Times needs readers, so an emotional topic such as this is a great hook. The provocative title speaks volumes, and the comment section got very heated.*

The Shopping Sherpa

How do you feel when you read or hear of new findings that seem to contradict what you believe to be pretty established knowledge in the medical community? Confused? Exasperated?

How do we cut through the hype and use our critical thinking skills to come to reasonable conclusions? Here are some tips to help you be a better information consumer:

Where were the findings originally published? It’s best if it’s a peer-reviewed journal (examples: Nature or the Journal of American Medical Association). If so, you can be assured the researchers’ study and findings have passed the scrutiny of professionals in the same field.

Have these findings been replicated in other experiments by other researchers, or is this a brand new finding?

Who funded the research? Was it the government, a pharmaceutical company, or some other entity with a vested interest in the findings? (NIH funded the breast-feeding study.)

Does the reporter or publication have a bias or agenda? In the case of the breast-feeding article, maybe the publisher saw a chance to attract readers with a controversial topic.

It’s relatively easy to find studies to support most points of view.  Whether you’re reading diet books, magazine articles, or health blogs – check the writer’s sources and their credentials. This is especially important today when we are bombarded by huge amounts of information. It’s important to be discerning!

*The study, from Ohio State University, compared 1,773 sibling pairs, one of whom was breast-fed, and the other bottle-fed. Controlling for multiple variables, and looking at 11 measures of health and intellectual competency, the study “found no statistically significant differences between the breast-fed and bottle-fed siblings on any of these measures.” 

The piece ends with statistician Geoff Der’s reassurance that, “In a society with a clean water supply and modern formulas,” he said, “a woman who isn’t able to breast-feed shouldn’t be feeling guilty, and the likelihood that there’s any harm to the baby is pretty slim.”

Image courtesy of The Shopping Sherpa