It’s a common scenario—you get stressed out and eventually it takes its toll on your health and well-being. That’s what happened last spring when Kathy Spicer was faced with multiple tight deadlines related to her work, spending long hours at her desk and grabbing meals on the go. During that time her brother died, just a year after she’d lost her mother.
“All that stress led to a perfect storm of unhealthy eating and no opportunity to exercise,” says Spicer, outreach program manager at Kent State University. She had put on 14 pounds over the course of three months before she joined a 12-week online weight-loss challenge that helped get her back on track and lose the weight.
“I’d check in with the Facebook group when we did our weekly weigh-in, and I was inspired by how motivated other people were, especially with their exercise,” says Spicer. “It got me going again.”
She started walking every day and found time to get in some steps during her lunch break and right after work. “I’ve always enjoyed walking, and getting back to it on a regular schedule reminded me of how good it feels,” says Spicer. “It’s important for my peace of mind and stress relief.”
The high cost of stress
Job pressure is the number one cause of stress in the United States (followed by money, health, relationships, poor nutrition, media overload and sleep deprivation), according to research compiled by the American Psychological Association and the American Institute of Stress. In a recent study, 76 percent of subjects cited work and money as the leading cause of their stress. The annual cost to employers in stress-related healthcare and missed work in 2014 was $300 billion.
The cost isn’t just monetary. Scientists are discovering that the cascade of effects caused by stress is harming our bodies and minds. You may think illness is to blame for your headache, insomnia or stomach upset, but stress may be the cause, and its symptoms can affect your body, mood and behavior. If left unchecked, stress can contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and infertility.
We may not be able to avoid stress, but the good news is, we can learn to manage it. “We’ve long known a simple, straightforward way,” says David Fresco, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Kent State University. “It involves following a regimen of diet and exercise. Trouble is, things that are simple are not always easy. Many of us struggle to follow a healthy lifestyle and stress makes it so much harder. We believe that teaching individuals skills for stress management, such as mindfulness meditation, may help them deal with stress head-on and strengthen their resolve to make a healthy lifestyle a priority in their lives.”
Fresco—along with Joel Hughes, Ph.D., an associate professor and colleague—recently received a $3.64 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study whether learning how to manage stress through mindfulness meditation and other strategies can help keep people off blood pressure medication. Scholars at the University of Pennsylvania are also involved in this five-year project, known to participants as the “Serenity Study.”
The researchers will recruit and treat 180 adults with elevated blood pressure from Northeast Ohio and Philadelphia for their research. Those in the study will receive one of two programs that teach them to manage stress. One program teaches mindfulness meditation as a stress reducer, and the other program will simply educate participants on stress management. All participants will receive information on how to eat healthy and exercise for lower blood pressure.
“For most of these patients, this will be their last and best chance to stay off medication,” Fresco says. “Although nearly half of all adults in the United States have high blood pressure, only one in three patients can successfully control their high blood pressure with conventional treatment, including lifestyle modifications and, if needed, medication.”
So what is stress and what makes it so overwhelming that it can affect our health and quality of life? Web MD puts stress in simple terms: it’s what you feel when you have to handle more than you are used to. Your body responds as though you are in danger. It releases a surge of hormones that speed up your heart, make you breathe faster and give you a burst of energy.
Most people view stress as an unpleasant threat, synonymous with distress. However, stress can be helpful and good when it motivates people to accomplish more. So any definition of stress should also include good stress, or what is called eustress. According to the American Institute of Stress, increased stress results in increased productivity—up to a point, after which things go rapidly downhill (see graph at right). We need to be aware of the warning signs that stress overload is starting to push us over the hump, but those signs differ for each of us and can be so subtle we might miss them.
“We don’t all perceive stress in the same way,” says clinical counselor Susan Fee, who has given presentations on emotional resiliency to Kent State employees. “What stresses one person may not stress another, so we have to be careful not to judge other people’s stress. Stress itself is neutral; it’s not positive or negative until it gets to a certain point or becomes chronic.”
Some people are more vulnerable to stress than others, because we try to avoid it rather than learn how to manage it, Fee says. We can build emotional muscle, just like we build physical muscle, by pushing a bit past our comfort zone and then recovering—similar to doing just one more pushup when we think we can’t do another.
“Whether you perceive an event as stressful or not depends on how you explain that event to yourself,” says Fee. “There are different ways to express stress; some people act out and others isolate. But the healthy way is to change our thinking and reframe our experience, which makes our emotions more manageable. Even if we feel overwhelmed, there is a moment between how we feel and how we behave—and in that moment we have choices to make.”
Stress can have positive or negative consequences, but it depends on how we handle it, says Kent State professor and environmental/exercise physiologist Ellen Glickman, Ph.D. “People eat to reduce their stress; people drink to reduce their stress,” she says. “As a nation, we are getting more and more unhealthy. We have high rates of obesity, high blood pressure and the risk factors for heart disease are adding up.”
Glickman offers her perfect solution—exercise. “Aerobic exercise, putting large muscle mass through a range of motion for a prolonged period of time (or moving 5–10,000 steps per day), helps reduce stress,” she says. “Hormones are released that help you feel better about yourself. Data also shows that people who move this amount sleep better and feel less depressed.”
In 2013, Glickman teamed up with Kent State’s Division of Human Resources to create an exercise program for faculty and staff that motivates people who previously led a sedentary lifestyle to exercise regularly. Participants are asked to exercise at the university’s MAC Center Annex three times a week for one hour, and they receive testing and support from trained exercise physiologists in the School of Health Sciences.
“We’ve seen positive results—an increase in aerobic fitness, a decrease in body fat,” Glickman says. “Participants have better flexibility and balance and less depression and anxiety.”
What if there was a way to stop stress from making people gain weight before they hit adulthood? Kent State researcher Amy Sato, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, is examining just that in her study of stress in low-income adolescents recruited from the greater Akron area. What she learns from the two-year study could be used in developing interventions to stop a pattern of obesity that carries over into adulthood.
Sato’s study, funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, looks at how stress-induced or emotional eating among low-income teens contributes to early obesity and eventually a life of disease. Low-income children face unique stressors, Sato says, because they may live in neighborhoods where it is unsafe to go outside or in families where food and money are scarce.
“What we will be looking at in this study is do obese, low-income children show more stress responses than healthy 12–17 year-olds?,” she says. “Do their bodies make more cortisol, which is one factor related to obesity risk? And do obese kids tend to eat more in response to stress?”
As a clinical pediatric psychologist who has taught stress management techniques to teens, Sato found that many of them eat in response to stress without even realizing it. “We can help make them aware of this—to see the connection between eating and stress,” she says. “This study is motivating because there are so many long-term effects of obesity. There is a lot of benefit to understanding what happens in childhood.”
As an antidote to stress and its related health issues, eight years ago Kent State’s human resources division developed a wellness program for staff and faculty that offers a variety of educational and fitness activities to help employees combat stress, learn about nutrition and lead a more active lifestyle.
Among the offerings are a walking program, educational webinars, Lunch and Learn programs about health topics, depression awareness, Weight Watchers at Work and faculty- and staff-specific programming at the Student Recreation and Wellness Center—including massage, the most popular service.
“Our goal is to help people with their work-life balance,” says Kim Hauge, human resources communications and project manager. “If they can have wellness options available at work, it doesn’t jeopardize their time with family.”
Kathy Spicer has taken advantage of many of the services offered at Kent State. “Whether it’s Weight Watchers, the employee exercise program or even being able to get your mammogram on campus, a university this size has so much to offer,” she says. “Kent State has a wealth of resources for health and wellness, and it’s been wonderful to have them available.”
Spicer keeps her weight off by walking around campus, planning ahead so she always has healthy meals in the freezer, and staying in touch with friends who share similar health and wellness goals. And when it comes to stress management, she’s learned to let some things go—and leave room for serendipity.
When she decided she needed a break from hosting the holiday meal for her large extended family this past season, she found it freeing not to have that responsibility. “I wasn’t up late every night baking 120 dozen cookies to send home with family like my mother used to do,” she says. “I didn’t bake a single cookie.”
Then one of her coworkers brought each person in her unit a small plate of holiday cookies. “Several were the same varieties my mom had always baked,” Spicer says. “It looked like my family traditions on a plate—only I didn’t have to make them. I was so touched and really enjoyed them.
“I used to be a perfectionist, but I’m learning that there’s more to life than worrying about every last darn detail. As time goes on, I’m getting more and more in touch with that.”
Susan Pappas Menassa contributed to this story.