AsianScientist (Dec. 2, 2014) – Just three weeks ago, I fell ill with the ‘flu for the first time in many years. While this is completely common in the Northeast of the United States at this time of the year (as I type, the weather outside is -3°C and quite windy), it was not normal for me in the slightest. I like to think that my constant exercise, kale-laden, moderate-carbs-but-lack-of-trans-fat diet keeps me in relatively good shape. At first, my throat was sore, which then morphed into a phlegmy cough, and then my nose was completely blocked.
I wallowed in my own mucus for about two weeks.
During these two weeks, though, because I had to turn down many events that involved social contact, I had a lot of time to myself to think and do things that I would not normally do: read a book (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah”) and sleep for more than six hours. I also texted my family at home a lot more than I regularly would.
Stress: it sneaks up on you
Then, I thought: how is this lifestyle healthy in the slightest? It really isn’t. I reached a new level of self-actualization during the peak of my illness. I have been depriving myself of sleep and actual human contact, in pursuit of becoming my version of an “ideal” self: always busy producing something or other (such as writing this article), meeting different senior people in the hopes of making the “golden connection”.
These are stressors. When did the pursuit of ambition circumvent the need to keep in touch with even my roommates? Who am I? Have I just become one of those people could potentially enroll in a study pertaining to stress?
In 2014, entire populations are plagued with all sorts of chronic illnesses that have one nucleus in common: stress. There is an association between stress and cardiovascular disease, stress and cancer, stress and depression…the list goes on. Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death worldwide, and stress is one of the risk factors.
Chronic stressors affect those typically living in urban settings. Chronic stressors often include job stress, marital unhappiness and the burden of caregiving. Stress is, indeed, associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
An international study that investigated the association between psychosocial factors and risk of myocardial infarction, people with myocardial infarction reported higher prevalence of stress stemming from work, life events and at home (Rosengren et al. Lancet 2004). People who reported permanent stress were 2.17 times as likely to have a myocardial infarction than those who did not.
The new normal?
Stress has become so ingrained into our systems that it almost seems that we could not function without it. Stress is a subset of mental health, and mental health is grossly underrepresented in many countries around the world. Mental and substance abuse disorders are the leading cause of disorders worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is defined as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
While the WHO’s definition of mental health is as objective as it can be, I wonder if the term “normal stresses of life” is truly “normal” any longer. It feels like if we don’t work out everyday, if we don’t stay at work until 8pm everyday, if we don’t keep up with the latest episode of The Game of Thrones, if we don’t post THAT Instagram selfie that will garner more than fifty-seven likes… we risk feeling inadequate, guilty and unworthy.
When self-esteem became a function of stress, it’s no wonder we are generally such an unhappy, ungrateful, un-everything society riddled with chronic disease.
Therefore, I ask you now, dear reader, to shut your laptop, step outside, breathe the free air, and call a family member or friend whom you haven’t spoken to in a long time.
As stressed as we all are, we’re still only human.
The article can be found at: Rosengren et al. (2014) Association of Psychosocial Risk Factors with Risk of Acute Myocardial Infarction in 11,119 Cases and 13,648 Controls from 52 Countries (the INTERHEART Study): Case-Control Study.
This article is from a monthly column called Our Small World. Click here to see the other articles in this series.
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