Stress is widely misunderstood in our culture. A hectic life, for example, doesn’t necessarily translate to a stressful one; unemployed people may be more stressed than busy CEOs. Stress is created by how we react to difficult circumstances.
Take Dr. Dean Ornish’s story of 11-year-old Tim and his father. One day last year, Tim’s father was driving him to a soccer meet, for which they were very late. As they pulled up to an intersection, the train lights started flashing and the gate came down, signaling the cars to stop to allow a slow freight train to pass through. Tim’s father responded in frustration, “Damn, now we are going to be even later.”
Innately, Tim responded, “Yeah, but now we get to see a great big freight train go by.” His perception changed the whole event.
When we respond in a stressed fashion to unpleasant circumstances, we initiate the basic fight-or-flight physiology with which we are genetically encoded. Adrenaline and related hormones are quickly released; heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, inflammation, and blood clotting increase as a result. Why? Because our bodies were designed to become stronger, bleed less, and repair damage more quickly during and after fights with wild animals.
Fortunately, such stressful circumstances rarely occur today. Unfortunately, though, “fights” with fellow drivers, bosses, spouses, and kids occur all the time. Our bodies still respond the same way to these new hostilities. If stress continues, the slower-acting hormone cortisol is released. Like adrenaline, cortisol increases blood pressure and sugar. Fat deposits within the abdomen increase, leading to metabolic syndrome and diabetes. By increasing blood pressure, inflammation, and clotting, stress also accelerates atherosclerosis.
Not all stresses are bad. For instance, any athlete knows that being “up” for competition improves performance. We are a socially and economically competitive society, so we sometimes need to be “up” in our daily lives. The problem is that chronic and repetitive stress cause heart disease.
Whenever possible, step around unnecessary stressful circumstances. If tardiness stresses you, leave plenty of time to get where you are going. If you know spending time with a certain person causes you stress or anxiety, try cutting back on the amount of time you spend with him or her.
When you cannot avoid stressful circumstances, the best way to step around stress is to learn how to respond better.
Stress Reduction Tools
To reduce the amount of stress in your life, adopt as many of the 10 activities listed in The Pritikin Edge; more enjoyment of life will be a welcome bonus.
[In this excerpt, we have space for only the first tool, but it is the most important one…]
Tool #1: Become Emotionally Nourishing
Your outlook is closely tied to your physical health. Emotionally nourishing people inspire a feast of joy in everyone around them. Sourpusses dine on meager emotional scraps. Emotionally nourishing people are those you would love to marry, have for a friend, or meet at a party. They make you smile inside and out.
The three essential ingredients of emotional nourishment are unconditional friendship and love, humor, and optimism. I would have used an existing word or phrase for this combination of healthy emotional qualities if one existed. In psychobabble, this kind of friendly, upbeat thinking is called positive cognitive restructuring. Pretty catchy, isn’t it? Right. Joie de vivre comes close, but it is not exactly the same.
Emotionally nourishing people initiate and amplify joy. During interactions, they respond in supportive, affirmative ways. They make others feel good just by being around them. We all know emotionally nourishing people; we just may never have focused on how emotional nourishment makes our lives healthy as well as happy. Just as stress, anger, and social isolation accelerate heart disease, affection, optimism, and enjoyment of life retard it. We can help avoid heart disease by surrounding ourselves with humorous, friendly, loving people, and by coloring our own emotions in the same way.
Case Study: The Polish Poker Players
My closest friends are a geographically dispersed collection of reprobate, curmudgeonly academic cardiologists and spouses who travel and teach cardiology in some of the nicest venues on Earth. My friend Jack assembled the group at his Snowmass meeting more than 30 years ago. Our favorite pastime is Polish poker. You need two hours or more, a lot of wine, and at least 10 friends to play. Twenty is even better. Everyone starts with three one-dollar bills. You get one card with each deal. Going around the table in turn, if you don’t want your one card, you can exchange it with the person on your left, unless that person has a king. High card, starting with the queen, loses. Lose the hand and you forfeit one dollar to the pot. It’s not intended to be a very cerebral game.
Cathy is the queen of the Polish poker players. A tall, emotionally nourishing Minnesotan, she is rarely without a smile and open arms for a hug. Cathy recites the moronically simple rules each and every time we play. Everyone pretends to not understand. We sing loudly whenever someone is busted after losing his or her last dollar. We get complaints from the neighbors. We love each other.
My wife, Sharyn, is the Polish poker players’ photographer. Sharyn is an emotionally nourishing “domestic goddess.” Her business card says so. I eat well, very well—by candlelight, enjoying fresh food cooked from scratch—every day. Can you eat very well every day in America and stay thin? You bet! My wife and I weigh 270 pounds . . . when we step on a scale at the same time. That’s what this book is about.
Sharyn collects people like others collect knickknacks. Sharyn’s second-favorite holiday is April Fool’s Day. I have been tricked and made to look ridiculous in every way imaginable.
My favorite episode occurred about 10 years ago on April Fool’s eve. Sharyn and Sallie (the lovely gardener from Chapter 4) traded places in the middle of the night without waking up either her husband or me. That morning, I didn’t even have to get out of bed to get fooled. Clearly, such foolery is not for amateurs. Moreover, I do not recommend that you try such a stunt at home unless both husbands have had recent, completely normal stress tests.
A sequel to that episode proved to me that there is justice in this world. A year later, Sharyn was scheduled to pick up Sallie’s daughter, Rachel, from school, but Sallie had forgotten to put her on the pickup list. The teacher would not let Rachel leave with my wife until the six-year-old suddenly and loudly announced to the class that it was okay because “Sharyn sleeps with my daddy.” Problem solved. I could not make up that story.
We all have emotionally nourishing friends like those in my Polish poker–playing circle. They are the optimistic, social, and unconditionally affectionate people in our lives that make us happy just by being in their presence. Make time for these people; your heart depends on it in more ways than one.
From THE PRITIKIN EDGE by Robert A. Vogel. Copyright
(c) 2008 by Dr. Robert Vogel and The Pritikin Organization, LLC.
Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.