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Killing ourselves with stress

It’s enough to eat you alive, from the inside out. Stress can kill. And if you’ve ever gone through a particularly stressful event, you understand just how true that can be.

The human body responds to stress in harmful ways. I’m not entirely sure why. The addition of corrosive acid to the stomach is just one effect. There are plenty more that come when danger strikes. Short bursts are not a problem. Remedies, such as drinking peppermint tea, can soothe those rough spots. But when stress is prolonged for days, weeks, months, or years, no medicine in the world can cure it.

And when you’re pacing the floor, wringing your hands, or banging your head against the wall, the knowledge that the stress you’re experiencing is harmful to your health — that it might even take years off your life — only makes the stress more stressful.

“I’ve got to calm down,” you tell yourself. “Don’t pressure me now, I’ve got enough to worry about,“ you respond. It’s vicious and self destructive, and all the advice in the world can’t make it stop. The only method to ensure it truly goes away is to resolve whatever is causing it.

In the last two weeks, I experienced what I believe was the most stressful period in my life so far. It wasn’t a matter of life and death. It was just stressful. Now that the worst is over, I can see why I was bothered so much. What it came down to in this instance, in a single word, was uncertainty.

Horror writers know all about the human tendency to dwell on “what’s going to happen?” Suspense is big business. People get profoundly frightened by the unknown, that some thing which may or may not be around the next corner.

You can try to breathe deeply. You can exercise, sip wine, be in the moment, or visualize something beautiful. But the real cure doesn’t come until the shadows are lifted and the uncertainty is banished.

The best example is the medical test. Doctors are now questioning the hyper preventative state of mind that today’s technology has driven. It feels as if it won’t be long before a scientist will be able to run a test to tell a mother how long her infant will live, whether it be ten months or ten decades. Wouldn’t you like to know? Really? Would you survive the stress of waiting to find out the results? There are a lot of diseases and defects in the human condition. At what point does our need to know result in so much stress that we become unable to enjoy the life we’ve got?

My uncertainty was related to the current task of selling our house to buy another. Were we going to move or not? Either answer would have been fine. We love our house now and the neighbors who surround it. But the house we hoped to buy held a key to a lifelong dream. Which one was it going to be? I just wanted to know.

It appears now that we will be moving, although we won’t know for sure until December. With each passing day, with each hurdle cleared, with each test result reported, I knocked down the cause of my stress. The relief that came from resolving the problem — the uncertainty — was far more beneficial to my state of mind than any temporary remedy could offer.

Of course, we must take the doctor’s advice and do the things that help us cope, but to truly tackle stress, we must identify its cause and then find an end to it.

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