....Dr. Earle's Frequently Asked Questions.... 

Dr. Richard Earle      Director, The Canadian Institute of Stress


1. I have heard a lot about "good stress" and "bad stress." What's the difference?

There really is no difference. Stress is stress. But you can make a difference, as I'll explain in a minute. At its most basic, powerful level, the "stress" mechanism is your body-mind's way of revving you up with very powerful energy. Whenever you need energy - whether to lift a barbell, to meet an annoying deadline, or to go on en enjoyable trip -- your stress level will automatically rise. Levels of very powerful stress hormones like adrenaline rise in your body giving you the energy and "psyched up" feelings you need ... whether getting out of bed on a cold morning or dealing with a difficult person.

So, think about stress as being like the gas in your car ... a very high octane racing fuel which, if used unwisely, for too long, in a badly out-of-shape vehicle can cause major damage to your body, emotions or relationships.

If you own a car, and it's more than a lawn ornament for your driveway, you have to use gas. If you're alive you have no choice but to see your stress level go up hundreds of times a day. Think of your stress as the energy you invest in your life. From this viewpoint, "good stress" is the experiences you have when you get lots of satisfaction back from the stress you spend. And, "bad stress" shows up when your returns-on-investment are low, as in fatigue, frustration or getting the flu frequently.

So, one of the best stress management techniques is to honestly answer - in your work or family life - these two questions: "What am I getting back for what I'm putting in?". And, "What, specifically, can I do to improve my returns on my investment today?". You can actually plan to have a "good stress" day. When you start out in the morning, ask yourself, "What two small things can I do today so that no matter what else happens - if I do them - I will feel I've had a good day?". For example, you may decide to send a birthday card to your brother; or maybe you'll make sure to make that phone call you've been avoiding too long. Stress is pretty much what you make of it.

2. I've tried to get my husband to pay attention to his stress which has been very high for the past two years. He won't listen. How can I get him to pay attention?

Thank you for your honest question. One shared by many spouses of both sexes. You're asking: How can I get my husband to see and, then, do one or two things differently?

Well, the simple, perhaps shocking answer is, "You can't get him to do anything". Motivation is very personal. We have to motivate ourselves. No one can "make" you, or him, do anything ... short of holding a gun to our heads. And, even that may not work. But still you want to help. And that's wonderful!

Let's get practical. How do people get motivated? And, on the flip side, why do people resist changes, especially making changes in their own lives? It's been said, "The only person who truly welcomes changes is a baby with a full diaper". So, what's the process whereby we ever get motivated enough to overcome our resistance to changing our ways? There are three steps. And, you can gently help your husband with all three. But, remember, they have to be his steps.

First, 90 per cent of all human changes are driven by pain or, at least, real discomfort with how things are going in my life. For example, I've got to lose weight. My suits don't fit. These hangovers are just too much. Or, these long hours at the office mean I hardly know my kids any more. Without pain, lasting change is very unlikely.

The second and third steps focus on how positive motivation boils down to two things.: (1) having a clear, 3-D mental picture of what "doing or feeling better" would actually look like. And, next, having a strong desire fueled by hopes and positive self-talk [e.g. "I love being involved in my kids' lives".].

These are three tried and true ingredients. I hope you can help your husband to discover them.

3. Do men and women react differently under stress?

Science has recently been catching up with commonsense. Almost everyone knew, long before the Mars/Venus enthusiasm, that most men react differently than most women either under acute stress or when carrying a long term stress load.

Early in the stress process, men tend to get ferocious and angry, then retreating into longlasting, almost unconscious seething, punctuated by brief eruptions. Is it any wonder that mens' disorders-of-choice focus on high blood pressure, ulcers or alcohol misuse? And, while men provoke more than their fair share of divorces, there is much health and psychological evidence that they recover from it much more slowly than women.

Women, on the other hand, have roughly twice the levels of depression, anxiety problems, post-traumatic stress disorders and auto-immune disorders (e.g. fibromyalgia).

Why the differences? The core stress mechanisms in the hypothalamic - pituitary - adrenal axis are powerful in both sexes. Yet it can be argued that, in terms of innate triggers and buffers for the stress hormones, men are somewhat more basic - dare I say "primitive" - than women.

It's the atypical woman who, when attacked, bares her teeth, erupts or seethes. Most, unlike the male "fight or flight" response, show a very different adaptation to stress called the "tend and befriend" response. Rather than risk injury fighting an aggressor, women are more likely (a) to first tend to their family and look after their home base, and (b) to seek out female friends for mutual comfort and protection.

And hormones, not just learning of gender roles, play a key part. In particular, early studies at UCLA show women to have higher levels of "oxytocin", a powerful mood regulator, enhanced by estrogen, predisposing them to seek out social support in difficult circumstances . In men, testosterone blunts their oxytocin, making fight or flight, not cooperation, more likely.

Perhaps, too, this is why, when lost on a trip, women will ask for directions while men don't, not wanting to feel weak and vulnerable doing so. It may also account, in part, for why women live seven years longer than men.

4. As a lawyer, I've noticed that after I've pushed hard on a stressful project or case for a month or two, I slide into a deep slump for several days with no energy and low motivation for my work. It's a real physical feeling of fatigue. Can this be related to stress? I feel it is.

This roller coaster pattern of prolonged high output followed by several days of near-depressed fatigue is increasingly widespread, especially amongst that 40% of Canadians who are working more than 50 hours per week.

To avoid these down, off-line times, the best first step is to understand how the stress roller coaster works in your body-mind. Stress is made up of three sets of hormones hormones that we inject into ourselves by the ways we respond in our daily lives. Stress is made up of (1) "uppers" like adrenaline which rise dramatically when we get revved up to meet a demand; (2) "modulators" like noradrenaline which allow us to stay very revved up (at high RPM) without too much risk of sudden cardiac death; and (3) "downers" like cortisol which our body - being a very wise mechanism - injects when it knows we've been revved too high for too long.

So, here's how the fatiguing "poker game of stress" gets going.

Let's say for the past two weeks you've been highly energized by your stress "uppers" really moving near the speed of light. Then suddenly, or so it seems, on Thursday afternoon, you feel bone weary, no energy, muscle aches "If I can crawl to my car, I'll be lucky".

So there you are at home, slumped in your favourite chair no energy, no motivation, so tired you don't want to do anything. Your cortisol "downers" are protecting you, giving you a restorative break.

Then, the little voice in the back of your mind says: "Are you crazy?!? You promised to have X or Y ready by 2 P.M. Friday! Get up!!!"

Wham. The poker game of stress has just escalated. As your mind yells "Get up!", your body injects you with a large dose of "uppers" basically it's saying, in poker jargon, "I'll see your cortisol, and raise you a great big dose of adrenaline".

Now you're all psyched up, energized again. In fact, your adrenaline level is even higher than it was yesterday [it has to be in order to overcome the cortisol]. And, on the weekend, to overcome all these new uppers, the next time your cortisol kicks in, it too will have to be yet again a higher dose.

And, on it goes. On you go. Like a roller coaster with ever higher peaks and deeper valleys. Of course, it's these valleys that more and more feel like - and sometimes are - depressed mood or, occasionally, depression.

So, next time you see the early warning signs, deal yourself out of the poker game of stress. Take a brief, refreshing strategic retreat. Make the choice to take a break, or simply change gears and do something else you enjoy. At the end of the day, you'll be much more productive when you're in charge of your stress hormones, rather than vice versa.

5. What are some of the signs that a person is under too much stress at work?

Because your body-mind, including the stress mechanism, functions the same way whether at work or home, the following early warning signs can be useful as a checklist for anyone, including students, homemakers or retired people.

Personal Stress Checklist

Mental / Emotional Physical Behavioural - inability to concentrate - pounding heart - irritability - erratic behaviour - dry mouth and throat - restlessness - emotional tension / keyed up - cold, clammy hands - impulsive behaviour - easily startled - headaches - poor judgement / more mistakes - much day dreaming - indigestion / queasy stomach - difficulty making decisions - excessive worry / brooding - trembling / tics - sudden increases in smoking or alcohol use - feelings of worthlessness - more frequent illnesses - difficulty getting along with people - forgetfulness - insomnia - - high blood pressure

If you are experiencing three or more of these on a fairly regular basis, you would be well advised to take one or two steps to reduce your stress level.

To be most helpful, I suggest you take two minutes now to jot down your personal early warning signs of your stress tachometer being in the red zone. If you're unclear, ask your spouse or a close friend. They probably know your signs better than you do.

6. I get a lot of tension headaches where my skull feels like it's in a vise. And I don't want to be taking a dozen pain relievers every day. I really need this to stop. What do you suggest?

Nearly 70 per cent of all chronic headache episodes reported at our Institute clinic are "tension headaches", the feelings you describe. More than 60 per cent  of all these adults experience at least three days of headache per week, typically lasting more than half the day, reducing their productivity, they estimate, by about 20 per cent. If sales of analgesic tablets are an indicator, headache prevalence has risen roughly 6 per cent  per year during the 1990s across North America.

Step #1 to getting relief or avoiding them altogether is to recognize that it's not just the frontalis muscles across your forehead creating the pain. In fact, muscle tension is always generalized. That means if one muscle group is getting tense, all groups throughout your body are in your neck-shoulder girdle, in your lower back, in arms and legs, etc.

As your stress level rises, the large muscles contract, preparing your body to protect itself by fighting an (imaginary) attacker or by running away and hiding under your desk as quickly as possible.

Two keys to preventing or, at least, shortening tension headaches are, first, pay attention to your early warning signs of muscle tension. Is your jaw tight, your hands clenched, back stiff or your breathing shallow? Or perhaps you just noticed your shoulders are up around your ears as you talk on the phone. Pay attention (!) to whichever is your earliest warning sign. Decide, "This isn't good. And, I can fix that".

So step #2 in preventing your headache is to take just several minutes to release your muscle tension. For example, do gentle neck-shoulder rotations; shake the tension out of your hand or thigh; walk around your work station once or twice; or do the simple-yet-powerful "Sigh of relief" breathing exercise. Fill your lungs comfortably with air. Hold it for several seconds. Then -- and this is the key -- slowly, comfortably exhale fully. Repeat this five times. Your muscle tension will already be decreasing.

And, by the way, since it's impossible to be emotionally "up tight" unless your muscles are tight, you will also find your thoughts are clearer and your emotions more balanced.

7. I know an exercise program is supposed to be "a good thing". I've tried many times. I haven't used the treadmill in my basement since the first month I bought it. How can I get and STAY motivated?

You're right. A regular exercise program - emphasis on regular - helps control your stress in several ways. First, an inefficient, unfit body is more easily over-taxed by daily demands leading, all too often, to more frequent reliance upon the quick-fix energy provided by stress to compensate. Stress then is escalated unnecessarily. Second, a good workout is one of the best ways to burn off any excess high octane stress hormones, returning more quickly to relaxed levels at day's end. Exercise also lowers fatigue acids. Consequently, many tired gym visitors report finding their second wind as they move through their workout.

The biggest cause of becoming a fitness drop-out is never having given yourself, at the outset, a truly personal honest answer to the question, Fit for what? Why exactly am I doing this? In very concrete, motivating terms, what are the paybacks I'm aiming for? Many men delude themselves that they want better stamina and flexibility with a side-order of slimness when, in fact, 80% of their desire is to look like Arnold Schwarzneger. Others' true desire is to socialize with the spandex set. Still others say that running 10 km. daily gets them fit for their executive day. Wrong again. A typical business day is more a series of wind sprints and, only secondarily, a long distance run.

My point is get really clear about what turns your crank about exercise. Make those motivating pictures the driving force in how you design your workout. Then, design a program that will actually accomplish what YOU want for your situation. And, if you'll spend just five minutes a day actually visualizing the successful, more "fit" you [whatever that means for YOU], you'll find your results will improve much more quickly.

8. I've heard that what you eat plays a big role in your stress. Is this true? If so, Why? And, what can an average person do?

Since you are a self-described "average person", you probably don't have the time for lunatic fringe nutritional breakthroughs. Thank goodness. Let's get to the basics that work.

When I first wrote a book chapter on nutrition and stress, Linus Pauling chided me for having described stress as energy. He was quite right. The human animal has only one physical source of energy the calories in the food we eat. That's a key to understanding stress nutrition linkages, and the basis for the several guidelines I'm offering for you.

1. Eat at least three balanced meals a day, plus several fruit snacks if you like.. Most importantly, eat a breakfast in which at least 25 per cent of calories come from low-fat protein.. For most of us, this will maintain energy supplies til lunch. Those unfortunate 32 per cent who don't eat breakfast of any kind will likely fall back on two things to stay alert til lunch -- eat between 200 and 400 calories of sugary snacks or trigger unnecessarily high levels of energizing stress hormones. Both are bad ideas.

2. Minimize those roller coaster foods which trigger a quick, high spike of stimulation followed by a sharp dip, leading yet again to more unwise stoking of nutritional fires. A buzz at 10 and eyes drooping at 10:45. For example, candy bars have a high glycemic index; well sugared coffee or chocolate also stimulate the adrenal gland's stress effects.

3. Consider a broad-spectrum vitamin-mineral supplement. Chronic high stress can induce deficiencies or otherwise raise your requirements for vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, B12, C, E and folic acid, and for calcium, magnesium and zinc.

4. The basics are powerful. At the Institute we offer eight core guidelines which may sound an awful lot like your mother. Here they are (1) Eat a variety (2) of unprocessed (and little processed) foods (3) with high nutrient density (4) in moderate amounts (5)during at least three regular meals a day, including breakfast, (6) combined with smart snacking patterns (7) while drinking at least six glasses of fluid daily (preferably water) and (8) taking a broad-based vitamin-mineral supplement. Practice these regularly and you will have gone a long way to guaranteeing your efficient production, transport and utilization of daily energy greatly reducing unnecessary reliance on pumping up your levels of stress-energy.

9. Is there any real truth or value to aromatherapy?

Great question! There are so many competing "good ideas," plus conflicting reports about the value of various wellness or wholistic health tools. It often feels impossible to tell where the fine line between the "leading edge" and the "lunatic fringe" really is.

And since many of these products and services carry a hefty price tag, not to mention some occasional risks, we need to become -- as you are -- better informed consumers.

For example, the hyped claims for many nutritional supplements or "subtle energy" healing techniques are so far removed from scientific support. Yet "health" is complex. And science tends to achieve its power via over-simplification. So, don't be too quick to condemn a remedy just because any available science is inconclusive. But that's a topic for another time.

Aromatherapy is an interesting and promising meeting ground half-way between and yet integrating the precision of science and the complexities of centuries old traditional healing arts. In fact, the promising young science of "aromachology" is emerging "promising" because, on the one hand, we understand many of the scent ' mood state pathways [linking olefactory and limbic system events] and, on the other, folk wisdom linking hundreds of specific herbal scents to different feeling states, providing a rich source of hypotheses for focused scientific testing.

I encourage you to learn more so you can make your own choices. I suggest you consult What Do You Really Want To Know About Aromatherapy?

10. We've adjusted to our teenaged son's strange sleeping habits. They seem "normal" amongst his friends. But quite often he just will go for days without saying more than ten words to us. Then he gets his enthusiasm back for a while. Is there anything we should be doing to help?

Many people think the "mid-life crisis" period of life is the most stressful there is. I disagree. For most, the teen years win hands down. While a certain amount of change going on is exhilarating, many changes, all at the same time, with one's primary source of stability being others in similar turbulence is a recipe for the "strange" you're dealing with. Teens are often dealing with a cauldron of uncertainties - not to mention hormonal changes - about friends, school, career choice, job, money, clothes, etc.

I've often noticed that when you have high stress plus lots of change - at work, school, or personal life - some degree of str-ange is inevitable. So, for parents, I would be more worried if the teen's behaviour seemed consistently even keel normal. Some mood fluctuations, from morose to almost terminally silly and joking, go with the territory within limits.

As parents, we need to be paying attention for early warning signs - not that these limits have been pushed - but rather that they have become things of the past. Self-neglecting, self-destructive or risky patterns, for example, warrant some parental involvement. In planning how to raise such an issue with your teen, here are a few guidelines:

1. Raise one specific pattern of behaviour which has repeatedly concerned you not a broad swath of concerns. And, avoid blaming, or focusing on some deep underlying personality trait or defect.

2. Raise it after you've had a familiar good time with your teen. This allows you to do something vitally important, as follows: "I really enjoyed _______ with you. You know even though we've had a few ups and downs, I really enjoy spending time with you. I guess in that way I'm kind of selfish. I always want to feel we can just have easy, enjoyable time together. So, I do try - without being too nosy - to pay attention to how things are going for you. It's important to me. For example, one thing I noticed a week or so ago that made me feel really good was ______. And, sure, sometimes I get a little concerned, like when I've noticed ____. It would really help me if I could understand a bit better. Remember, it's been a long time since I was a teenager. And, your situation today is different than when I was __ years old. Can you take a minute to fill me in about what's been happening on that, so I can understand a bit better?

You might also want to check out some parenting resources on the web, like www.effectiveparenting.org

2000-2007 Canadian Institute of Stress All rights reserved.