- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Erica Lodish of Bethesda used to head straight for the fridge when she got home from work. She buried the stresses of work, family problems and disappointments by eating, preferably cheese and crackers, anything salty.

"I eat to calm myself," Ms. Lodish says. "I don't eat to reward myself."

Eating too much is just one of many ways to deal with stress, a condition that leaves us feeling frazzled or panicked. Doctors say stress is becoming more and more common and that some people "worry themselves so sick" that they wear down their immune systems, become depressed or suffer heart problems.

However, stress is not always a bad thing. By releasing the stress hormone cortisol, our brain puts the body on high alert. As the cortisol is released, our pupils dilate and our heart rate and blood flow increase. We're in fight or flight mode.

This mode used to be crucial for our survival when we were hunters and gatherers. As we stood face to face with a lion, for example, the stress would enable us to run fast or fight hard. We had a physical reaction to a physical situation.

Now, instead of facing a lion a very concrete enemy for some we face less concrete fears and worries: Maybe we'll lose our job, or our money on the volatile stock market. Running or fending off a foe with fists won't help against those threats. So, we feel frayed, anxious, stressed out.

Job-related stress is the most common form of stress.

"The nature of stress in primitive man was physical, while the nature of stress in modern man is not a life-threatening event that happens every four months. We may experience it three or four times a day," says Dr. Paul Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y.

No wonder stress can build up inside us.

"I call it toxic stress," says Dr. Pamela Peeke, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, and author of "Fight Fat After Forty," which deals with the relationship between stress and overeating.

"If we don't release the stress, it becomes incredibly toxic. It can be dangerous, even life-threatening," Dr. Peeke says. It can cause heart disease, and even cancer, say some doctors.

From a physiological standpoint, not releasing the stress means that the cortisol remains in our bloodstream and we remain on high alert, Dr. Peeke says. Moving our bodies as in fight or flight helps reduce stress, since physical activity helps shut off the production of cortisol, which eventually leaves the body by being excreted in the urine.


While stress is a biochemical phenomenon (the cortisol-induced hyperalertness), what triggers it is very individual. If you strike someone on the arm, the person most likely will bruise, but may not get stressed out by the action.

"Stress is completely in the eyes of the beholder. It's about attitude," Dr. Peeke says. "It's about perception. A stress can be perceived as an everyday thing, or a life-threatening thing, depending on whom you talk to."

One of Dr. Rosch's favorite examples of differences in people's perception deals with a roller coaster ride: The people in front with their arms raised are having the greatest thrill of their lives, while the people in the back are holding on for dear life, wishing nothing more than that the ride will end. They perceive the ride as a torture chamber.

"Some things that are stressful for some people are pleasurable for others. Different strokes for different folks. Stress is very much about perceptions and expectations," Dr. Rosch says. "The perception of not having control creates stress."

While stress is very individual, there are some aspects of it that are gender- specific, Dr. Peeke says.

As care providers, women tend to overthink and worry about everything, Dr. Peeke says. Women will think not only of how a situation might affect them, but also their families and friends. Men are more action-oriented and tend to overthink less. They compartmentalize and rationalize, and then move on.

The F-16s over Washington provide a perfect example of gender-specific stress, Dr. Peeke says. A woman will lie in her bed at night listening to the F-16s. To her the sound indicates

that the world is an uncertain place. She worries about her family. She can't sleep. To a man, on the other hand, the sound of the F-16s is reassuring. The planes are protecting us. Things are the way they should be.

As far as coping with stress, men and women are drawn to different vices. Men tend to drink alcohol while women tend to eat, Dr. Peeke says.

"When you're at the airport, go to the red-carpet club and just observe. The women are where the cookies are, and the men are all at the bar drinking."


Eating cookies and drinking martinis may stave off stress in the short term. But in the long term those practices may create their own sets of problems.

As with the triggers of stress, effective coping mechanisms too, are very individual.

"Meditation and jogging are great for some people," Dr. Rosch says. Others need medication for depression or insomnia, which can be manifestations of stress, he says.

Ms. Lodish, who is still working on maintaining a healthy diet, has learned to calm herself with other healthier methods, such as working out in a gym and taking long walks. She even participated in the New York Marathon last year, just after September 11.

"It was so rewarding," Ms. Lodish says. "I proved to myself that I could do it."

Kamakshi Hart, who runs a yoga studio on Capitol Hill, says many people turn to her with the expressed wish to reduce the stress in their lives.

"Our daily lives are so over-the-top with stressIt's really insane what we're subjected to on a daily basis," Ms. Hart says.

"Yoga offers people a chance to literally catch their breath," she says.

Those who deal well with stress are "stress resilient," Dr. Peeke says.

"To achieve stress resilience, you have to learn how to shed stress. To flow with it. To bounce with it. To learn that a situation is what it is," Dr. Peeke says.

Stress, she says, is in the eyes of the beholder. Potentially stressful incidents happen to all of us, but we react to them on a very different, individual level. If you can't roll with the punches, you are more likely to get upset and "stressed out" when things don't go exactly according to plan.

"It's important to look for ways to regroup," Dr. Peeke says. "If plan A doesn't work, a lot of people freak out. But if you are stress resilient you can go from plan A to plan B to plan C."

Dr. Rosch recommends making a "stress audit," which means writing down all the things that stress you out. Once the stress triggers are on paper, divide them up into the ones you can avoid and those you can't avoid. That way, you can focus your efforts in areas in which you are most likely to achieve success.

Having a strong social support network is another important coping mechanism, Dr. Rosch says.

"People can learn to gain more control," he says. "One great stress reducer is doing something you can enjoy that benefits others When you do someone a kindness, you feel better."

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