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Wind and Hail

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Brain Functions in Stressful Situations

I was always convinced most people claiming to be distressed just tend to overreact. Stress was related only to truly traumatic and challenging situations in my mind and I didn’t take seriously complaints of chronic stress, stress overload, stress from sudden love fever and similar stuff. It all looked like a lame excuse to me, like:

“John, I’ve got to talk to you.”

“Honey, not now, I’ve been so much stressed lately, I need some peace and quite” bla-bla-bla.

But recently I’ve changed my mind. “Stress” seems to be the most frequently used word I keep hearing lately. My cousin got a new job and has yet to establish himself as a good specialist, running errands and having to complete a variety of difficult tasks in a short time. My friend’s moved overseas and has to cope with a full range of things, from getting accustomed to difference in cultures to hiring a suitable apartment and getting used to a new job. My other friend is going through a painful breakup after three years of emotional abuse. My old schoolmate is a new mom, not getting enough sleep, pressed for time and money, and having gone off her husband. My co-worker went to pieces when he learned his brother had been killed in a motor accident. My neighbor has been complaining of insomnia and high blood pressure since his son was hospitalized. I’m starting to get the impression that we don’t live but constantly experience life stress, alternating it with yet more disastrous events.

I’m not usually one to complain, but my own life is far from being an example of perfect harmony too. There are a lot of unresolved questions burning in my mind. To make things worse, my boss somehow thinks I’m a superman having no other mission on Earth than working at projects of increasing complexity with increasing speed. I run round in small circles and beginning to wonder if it’s worth it. The last drop was my friend who with uneasy smile told me that being just friends was no part of his plans any more:

“I don’t sleep at nights and can’t concentrate on work. Oh, and I can’t sleep with other women,” he was definitely implying something but I didn’t get the hint. Nominating for a heartbreaker of the month was no part of my plans. It was my turn to act a prize idiot:

“Oh, I’ve been so much stressed lately, I’m under so much pressure now, really. Got to be going now.”

In light of this global stress hysteria, I thought it may be worth my effort to make a sort of a research into the problem of stress, its types, effects, dangers and benefits, if any, and effective ways to relieve it.

The problem of stress was especially acute for me at different times in the past and I used to read a lot on stress and the ways to battle it only to find out that there’s nothing new in the world. This time, I chose to go into details and get more insight into the stress stuff, especially that part of it which is related to physical and mental health effects.

Apparently, some stressful situations are more severe than others and tend to bring about major consequences in people’s lives, bodies and minds. Some of the stresses my acquaintances complain about are quite normal, just an essential part of life. But others are extreme situations that verge on emergency survival and life instincts, and people having got through such an experience command respect. The most intriguing part of it is what’s happening to the brain and body of a person in a stressful situation. Do you remember the heart beating faster, rapid breathing, flushed face, sweaty palms, and loss of appetite? Or do you remember a surprising energy, clarity of thought, and quick reaction you had in demanding situations, to your surprise?

Surely, the types of stress I experienced when catching up with a train and when I lost my beloved people differ a lot. Some stressful situations are more like a challenge and others have a destructive power. Do all these situations belong to stress: deadlines at work and splitting up with a partner, being robbed and moving in? Researchers don’t have one opinion concerning the definition of stress. Some say stress is an external response measured by physical functions, such as changes in glandular secretions, skin reactions, others refer it to an internal reaction to a stressor, and others wisely define it as both. Strictly speaking, stress is a defensive physiological reaction, caused by some stimulus, the body’s way to react to particular challenging events.

It’s all about hormones. Going more scientific, I’ll outline some physical and chemical processes of stress response. The immediate emotional and physical reactions to stress are provoked by certain chemical releases, which activate the nervous system. When you sense danger, your brain sends immediate nerve signals to your adrenal glands to produce more of the adrenaline and cortisol hormones and release them into your blood. It’s the adrenaline that increases your heart rate, the amount of glucose and fatty acids in your blood, raises your blood pressure and speeds up metabolism when you are stressed. Cortisol keeps your blood sugar and blood pressure up to help you escape from danger.

The area of the brain dealing with stress is limbic system, the so-called emotional brain. When there is any threat, your limbic system gives a response through the network of endocrine glands regulating metabolism. As oxygen-rich blood moves faster to your brain and the muscles, it makes you stronger and gives you plenty of energy necessary for “fighting or fleeing”. Your brain releases endorphins known as natural painkillers. Your senses become more acute, your memory sharper, your muscles alert, and your pain threshold higher. These physical changes make your mind and body ready for a quick reaction to a stress. You react to stress before your brain even knows it.

At the same time, other hormones, such as responsible for growth, reproduction and the immune system, unnecessary during the emergency situation, stop functioning. So, chronic stress may lead to sexual dysfunction, impair your immune system, your memory, or appear as skin ailments and other diseases. Normally, when the danger is finally over, your brain releases a different set of biochemicals, that is tranquilizing chemical forces, and takes the reverse action to bring your mind and body back to balance. This balance is called metabolic equilibrium, or homeostasis. In case the stimulating or tranquilizing chemical forces happen to dominate the other, you will experience a dangerous imbalance. The thing is, the stress response turned on for a long time can cause damage to your cardiovascular, immune, nervous systems, putting you at risk for a heart attack or stroke, and injure or even kill the brain cells. In other words, short-term stress and an appropriate stress response is a healthy part of life, crucial in emergency situations and at times of challenges. It helps create new memories, improves mood, stimulates your brain, makes you more creative and enables you to act effectively under pressure. But the long-term stress can cause serious problems in case the stress response fails to turn off. Chronic over-secretion of stress hormones affects brain function. Cortisol decreases the rate at which new brain cells are made. Energy crisis in the hippocampus impedes its ability to create new memories. This explains why some people fail to remember some traumatic events. Ongoing low-level stress and continued pressure wear out the nervous system, producing extra stress hormones and causing stress-related health problems.

In evolutionary terms, stress response means survival, but it was formed in the environments very different from the social and psychological environments of modern world. We are not stalked by furious tigers nowadays, and there’s no need exercising scamper or hunting skills. We are more likely to endure stress at the desk or in the car, having the same old frantic stress response in our system but staying almost immobile, and as we all know, some amenities tend to back-fire, - in this case, with stress-related ailments.

We all have different personalities, and that’s pretty cool. This makes our life so interesting and diverse. It makes us go to the polls. It makes us go on blind dates, after all. But I never say that I know a person until I’ve seen him act in a stressful situation. Faking is next to impossible here, and you can observe the real nature of a person, his reactions, abilities and attitude. It’s something beyond his control. This is where we are alike: our brains can’t help quickly reacting to fearful situations. Self-preservation instincts rule. But the reaction to stress may differ. Some people seem to be able to pull up trees in stressful situations, and others tend to stiffen, unable to react adequately.

I admire people who have a naturally laid-back attitude to everything. They never seem to fuss. Others tend to panic at the first sign of problem and freak out when there’s change in their plans or some pressure. But most people are somewhere in between these two categories: when they are feeling confident, they take stressors in stride, and when their position weakens, they may be unprepared for stress. Everything matters: your genes, physical form, differences in personality, general health, your social support networks, and your childhood relationship with your parents. Stress reactions may be divided into behavioral (substance abuse, irritability, decrease or increase in activity, communicational difficulties), physical (headaches, weight loss or gain, immune system disorders, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal problems), psychological (denial, guilt, apathy, depression), mental (memory problems, lack of concentration, difficulty making decisions), and social (isolation, inability to relax and have fun, blaming).

As recent studies show, around 70 percent of all the ailments belong to psychosomatic ailments caused by stress. A wide range of conditions and disorders, ailments and negative habits go with or come as a result of stress. Sleep disorder, Attention Deficiency Disorder, addiction to alcohol, smoking, depression, obesity, problems at work and family problems, and even suicidal tendencies are all associated with stress. Stress is known to provoke illnesses and aggravate chronic conditions.

Some extreme stressful situations may have devastating effect and need special attention. Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatic condition that may follow a very traumatic event, like a serious car accident, or a natural disaster. Besides psychological symptoms, PTSD is also associated with biological changes, physical and mental health. PTSD may be complicated by depression, substance abuse, problems of memory and other physical and mental health issues.

The good news is that normally, people do not suffer severe effects from moderate levels of stress. Some stresses can be a motivational force that makes a person achieve the things he had no idea he was capable of. It’s only chronic or traumatic stress that can impair a person’s physical and mental health. Ohio State University researchers found that stresses from engaging in a memory task, such as studies or challenges at work, activate the immune system, while the stress from watching a violent video, for example, weakens the body’s defenses.

Men and women tend to react to stress in different ways. According to UCLA researchers, men usually react to stress with a “fight-or-flight” response, while women try to manage their stress with a “tend-and-befriend” response. “Fight-or-flight” response means that men either react to stress with aggressive behavior or run from the stressful situation. Females respond to stressful situations by “tend-or-befriend” response. They are more likely to deal with stress by seeking support from others. Protecting and caring for their kids (the “tend” response), and maintaining social relations (the “befriend” response), women try to cope with stress. Historically, fleeing or fighting in dangerous situations was not an option for a woman who was pregnant or taking care of children. Women had to develop social contacts to be able to provide care for their offspring in stressful times. The brightest example of befriending methods now is talking over the phone with relatives or friends. It is true that tend-and-befriend approach may in a sense protect women against stress. Men are considered more vulnerable to the effects of stress and are prone to such stress-related disorders as hypertension, aggressive behavior, or abuse of alcohol or hard drugs. It explains why females tend to live longer than males.

Babies, though having no idea about their sexual identity, as well as about breakups and deadlines yet, also experience stress. Researchers claim that too much stress may affect babies’ physical and mental health later in life. It’s during the early months and years of our life that we develop the foundations of our stress response system. The way we react to stressful situations in life much depends on the successful development of this system in early childhood. Too many stressful situations in tender age may tell on the way people respond to stress in later years and form a pattern of higher stress hormones level. When babies’ basic needs for food, touch and care are neglected, they are much distressed. Love, proper care and attention to their needs provide an opportunity to develop healthy stress response system and sound mind.

It is important to be aware of your own reactions to stress and potential health problems you might face. For example, many people tense up, having neck or shoulder tension, or clenched fists. If you experience an upset stomach, headaches, or back pain, it may be a result of tension and stress. Some people tend to overeat when they are distressed. Eating as a means of distracting a mind from the problems can lead to obesity and more problems in the long run. Then, you certainly met people who vent their stress on their family, friends, or co-workers. They get angry about things that often have nothing to do with the cause of their stress and become defensive or aggressive for nothing. Stress makes people overly emotional, and you may cry or complain excessively. Though crying is one of nature’s stress-relieving strategies, try not to overuse it. People, who smoke, use smoking as a way to relax in stressful times. Perhaps they don’t know that nicotine not only fails to battle stress, but also acts as a stress stimulant. Stress leads some people to drink too much or engage in drug abuse, which surely makes the problem as bad as it gets.

You will need stress-management skills to cope with stress and prevent the negative effects it may have on your health. Practicing effective de-stressing techniques will ensure a good health and a pleasant feeling of being in control of life, not allowing the sympathetic nervous system stay chronically aroused. Since everyone has a unique response to stress, it is worthwhile experimenting with techniques to work out what brings you back into balance. Effective means to battle and prevent negative effects of stress are physical exercise, relaxation, massage, aromatherapy, yoga, soothing music, social contacts, like support of family and friends, caring for a pet, healthy lifestyle and positive attitude to life and cropping up problems.

Nature provides us with a wide range of helpful methods to relax. You can get rid of stress by controlling your breath, by having long walks, enjoying the beauty of trees and water, listening to birds, smelling flowers, etc. All popular means of activating relaxation response are built on these simple techniques available to everyone. If you start spending more time outdoors using nature as your healer, you will soon notice that you have become calmer and healthier. I guess everyone would agree that media, high technologies, negative information and noise add to a list of stressors and pressure cookers nowadays. Moderating your TV and Internet time with all their negative information and tiring effect is also very useful for those wishing to battle stress.

Ever heard of people practicing yoga on board? They are not crazy, they just have chosen the techniques of relaxation that suit them best and practice it on a regular basis in circumstances they find stressful. You may need to change ways to handle stress in case you find yourself using one stress-reduction strategy all the time, especially if it is something like smoking or crying. Never rush so much as to have no time to stop and admire the beauty of a moment, be it to smell roses, to look at the stars, or to pat a dog. People, who enjoy life and never stint a kind word, attention and love, usually feel more confident and relaxed. They see problems as opportunities and not as insuperable obstacles. Remember that no situation lasts forever. When you look back at something, you don’t necessarily recognize the past events as stressful as you thought of them before. It is likely that you may even laugh at them later.

It’s not always easy, but try and find the humor in the stressful situation when appropriate. Laughing releases pain-killing endorphins and you become more stress-proof. A smile is incompatible with anger or fear. Every time I describe some stressful situation for me in a humorous way and laugh at myself, I feel my tension and stress reducing and vanishing. And by all means, shopping therapy, traveling and a friendly chat with optimistic friends work wonders (tested on me).

This is roughly what I told my friend about stress when I saw him after that awkward situation. When I got to hippocampus and cortisol thing, he raised his eyebrows. When I accompanied my description of possible stress effects with gestures, he tipped back in his chair. And when I reached the de-stressing part, he began to chuckle.

“You see? It’s all very serious,” I said.

“Yeah,” he gave a nod. “I liked the part about homeostasis and tigers. Why don’t we meet? more often?”

“Ohh, you know I can’t. You’ll be stressed. I owe you to “other women”.

“They don’t have such a cute hippocampus.”

I sometimes wish my hippocampus could be more amenable, or just a little less stressed.

Obesity and Life Insurance

Do you know that insurance can be an additional assistance in fighting against obesity? According to statistics, 127 million Americans are overweight, and that’s a problem that ought to be addressed. Your weight influences how much you will pay for Life Insurance. Insurance carriers use health ratios to determine policy rates. You are likely to pay more for extra pounds. This is because obesity leads to much more serious health problems like heart disease and poses a threat of a shortened life span too. It follows that losing weight will help you lower your life insurance costs.

Notify your Life Insurance provider of a weight loss. When you achieve your target weight, Life Insurance carriers will reward you with substantially lower premiums. Winning the battle over obesity will not only help you become healthier, but will also give you a chance to start saving on your Life Insurance, which is an additional stimulus to train off.

Birthday Insurance

Love knows no bounds. Especially the love of grandparents to their grandchildren. How do you like the idea of “Birthday Insurance,” a type of Life Insurance that sends grandchildren a birthday card and a check, for the rest of their lives after their grandparents passed away? Do you see this insurance product as a financial-planning tool or just a weird way to keep memories tangible?

Money (a check of $100, or $500, the sum depends on what you actually sign up for) comes with a “personalized” greeting card, as sentimental as 30 characters Commemorative Life provides you with allow you to be. It repeats year after year. This sounds pretty much like a scenario to a movie about afterlife with messages from above, don’t you think?

When it comes to money, the conversation often gets tougher. Doubtful that grandparents want to be remembered for providing a regular gift check only. We talk about a certain amount of money received annually in this case, it is likely that the buying power of the sum will decrease, making it rather a routine procedure than a meaningful act and real financial help. Will it make the memories faded and devaluated too?

It is important for grandparents who want to create a legacy and provide their grandchildren with something meaningful in terms of money, to consider some Life Insurance type, but I’m not sure about this particular one. Being a caring grandparent when you are alive pays a lot more.

Pet Insurance?

Do you belong to pet and animal lovers who spend plenty of time and large amounts of money on your little (or not so little) friend? Do you often talk to your pet as if he were a human understanding your every word? Do you feed him the best food and take him to a groomer when required? Often watch TV on the couch together? Can’t imagine an evening without playing with your dog or having a cat on you lap? What about spending long hours training, walking and exercising your pet? Do you teach your kids responsibility? Do you dress your dog up in a cute warm sweater when it gets chilly? Should your pet get injured or sick, do you rush to the vet’s ready to do and pay anything to save his life?

If you say “yes” to these questions and know that there’s much more to pet ownership, you are the type to purchase Pet Insurance. It will save you money in a bad situation, but most importantly it will save you pet.

Depending on the type of pet you have, its age and health and your attitude towards pet health care, you can choose the insurance level. Pet insurance premiums range from $100 to $300 per year. But they tend to increase as much as 50% as your pet gets older. Now tell me, between bills adding up and euthanasia at around $250, what would you choose? If you are like me, then start looking for Pet Insurance by checking with your employer whether they are offering Pet Insurance, as it’s getting really popular now. It’s not you who teach your kids responsibility when you bring a pup home; it’s the pup who teaches you and your kids responsibility and unconditional love.

RAND Health Insurance Study

This is exactly what makes me hesitant to follow new rules, whatever sphere of life they apply to: new products or new research studies. When they say “Scientists refute the results of the previous study,” I can’t help smiling. That’s what I was waiting for when hesitated to believe their categorical results. I know that as time passes, new views and solutions are bound to be developed and older ideas reconsidered if not altogether denied.

This time it’s RAND study. Now they start questioning whether RAND was wrong. This largest social science experiment has been affecting US health policy for decades. It’s high time to claim it was full of flaws. RAND is all about the cost sharing and its effect on service use, quality of health care, and health of participants.

It’s not only the scientists whose minds are engrossed by the idea of providing all Americans with high quality health care at affordable rates. We all hope it can come true. Higher cost sharing leads to lower levels of medical utilization, and what is more, the lower use of services has no negative health impacts for an average person. This conclusion was made during the experiment which now seems doubtful.

Many participants were randomly assigned to free plans, and others were assigned to some cost-sharing plans. One of the reactions to cost sharing was in a number of RAND participants voluntarily dropping out of the experiment. When they claim that higher co-pays don’t degrade health outcomes, it actually appears that many of those individuals facing health problems and assigned to the high co-pay simply dropped out of the study, which means we don’t know what their outcomes would have been otherwise. Since individuals in the low co-pay group did not drop out of the study, the whole comparison between the two groups is flawed.

This is a classic missing data problem in statistics; they needed to follow up on all the dropouts to get the decent results. So all RAND conclusions were drawn from the biased data and now many studies based on RAND have to be re-viewed too.


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