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Rat Race

Rat Race Last week while seeing an amazing woman who counsels patients, she asked me how I was doing. I thought for a moment, "Seriously? I'm stressed out!" She and I laughed together as it seemed like we both connected with that expression of frustration. "The patient load has increased a bit, but that's not the problem. They're sicker than they use to be." She looked at me, thought for a moment, "Mine too. People are more disturbed emotionally than ever. Isn't that strange. People are becoming meaner." She smiled and we took a relatively long time to explore the reasons why. No conclusions, just a list of unanswered questions.Friday night, I just could not let it rest, the thought that people are sicker now more than ever. I pondered over what I remembered from medical school. I recall vividly seeing a woman with breast cancer. She was in her fifties, a bit over weight and very ill. Breast cancer was uncommon then. The oncologist in charge of her care recruited every medical student stationed on the hospital floor to see the woman and examine her, so everyone could all get an idea of what a breast cancer victim may present like in our future medical practice activity. I examined a second woman with breast cancer eighteen months later. I saw just two women afflicted with the disease in my medical school clinical experience. It just seems like breast cancer is so much more prevalent now. Maybe it is just that our awareness has exponentially grown in thirty years. I really do not think that is the answer. And the incidences of auto immune diseases have grown through the roof, somewhat like Jack's Beanstalk into the sky. It is no fairy tale.As the years have passed, we have many inventions that were supposed to make our lives easier, more convenient and less stressful. The cable television industry has morphed into an amazing entertainment outlet with all of the potential for being an effective distraction from our daily stressors. Microwaves and convection ovens have lessened cooking times for foods. The personal computer was supposed to make our work life more efficient, less time consuming and allow us to take more time off because we were supposed to be more productive in less time. Cell phones were supposed to let us roam free, staying connected but respecting our personal time, land line phones helped us to screen calls, stay away from talking to everyone at a moment's notice. I can remember when answering machines and call waiting emerged, both monumental triumphs in the phone industry. More time to get away and relax. A simpler life was coming. A simpler, less complicated life has not occurred in correlation with technological advancement in entertainment and communication in general. More sadly, we have become profoundly overloaded with constant unrelenting stimulation in our psychosocial worlds. Now we have cyber stalking and bullying, pop-up adds and endless amounts of pseudo-journalism, infomercials and shopping channels.For many, many years, scientists believed that the stress response was not stimulated by psychosocial events of any kind. In addition, the early scientists believed that the body could be mapped out like the circuitry diagram that comes with your automobile's shop manual. Physiologic responses could be measured with meters and blood tests, they identified input-output ratios, discovered negative feedback loops and servomechanisms. Somewhere along the way, a few courageous psychologists started interfering with several of the most prominent physio-bio-engineers, making a stand by exclaiming that psychosocial trauma was a major contributor to the body's stress response. Without going in detail, those pioneers who dared to force their will upon the establishment were correct. It was made clear through countless studies that the stress-response could be made bigger or smaller depending on psychological factors. What followed was the observation that psychological factors alone could trigger the stress response. And in this day in age, we have psychosocial stress everywhere we turn. We cannot get away from it. It is everywhere.When rats are subjected to unrelenting mild electrical shocks over a period of time, they develop stomach ulcers as well as elevated heart rates and high cortisol levels in their blood. This is an ideal test model to see how rodents might cope with chronic unrelenting stress, just evaluate the number of rats subjected to the stress and count their ulcer formations. Turns out, if you have two groups of rats both subjected the same external shock algorithm, but let one group have a piece of wood to gnaw on after the shock is delivered, they develop less ulcers. Get a rat an outlet to relieve their frustration like water, food or even a running wheel, they are less likely to develop ulcers.Humans also do so much better with daily stressors if they have outlets to relieve frustrations. Taking a run after work, riding a bike, writing a blog or having a hobby is very important in diminishing the chronic untoward effects of the stress response. The distraction must be good for the person, it must help them see that life is so much greater than whatever is causing them to become crazy or stressed out. Out of this idea is the belief that we can mentally go to our happy place in our minds and the stress can be relieved without ever leaving the farm. There are studies to show that this concept actually works. I frequently imagine a running brook winding through a quiet peaceful lush green forest with a subtle breeze causing the foliage to dance in synchrony to the sound of the rustling water. That seems to calm me down. Another interesting study emerged about stress release. A scientist did the same shock experiment on a group of rats until they were very disturbed, but instead of giving the rat something to gnaw on or drink or eat, he let the rat retreat to another area of the cage sit beside another rat. The stressed out rat bit the innocent bystander over and over again. Stressed induced displacement of aggression works wonders at minimizing the stressfulness of a stressor. It is a real human specialty as well. How many times have we been victims of someone else's anger just because we just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? And then I remembered my patient's comment, "People are getting meaner." That fits.The healthcare industry is becoming more greedy and meaner. If you took any interest in reading the recent legislation in the Healthcare Act, the only two aspects of the industry that were negatively affected by it were the doctors and the nurses. Everyone else in the healthcare industry benefited. The problem that's going to emerge is that the professionals who actually care for the infirm are going to get so stressed that the system will eventually implode. We are seeing people's lives becoming more stressed than ever with all of our technological advances. Employees cannot leave work, work follows them home on their phones, tablets and lap top computers. We cannot leave a party, we have to answer text messages and emails long after the party is over. We cannot disconnect from the constant psychologically based marketing techniques of greedy corporations, churches and the fashion industry through radio and television ads and uninvited pop-up displays on our computer screens telling us were too fat, too ugly, too stupid, too unchurched, too racially divided or too demanding of people to take some responsibility for their disturbing behaviors which we attribute to their stressed out lives.People are getting meaner to each other, stressed induced displacement of aggression works wonders at minimizing the stressfulness of a stressor, not just one of them, all of them. And the toll that these technological advances are having on our population in general is public health concern in the first order. What can anyone do about it?Take time to retreat from the madness. Still yourself more frequently. Take a walk in the park with your phone, laptop or tablet locked in the car. Go to the zoo. Sometimes, just listen to music in the quiet of the forest. If you enjoy exercise, do it frequently. And at the very least, stay away from mean people; all of them no matter who they are or where they are. Run! And just maybe you will avoid that ulcer, that migraine or that heart attack or that terrible automobile accident while texting. I think there is more to life than the rat race most of us are in. Studies have proven that even rats wouldn't do so well in it. How about you?Doc
Posted by Amanda Sanders at 10:51 AM
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