A little stress won't kill you

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A little stress won't kill you, in fact ...: Short term hassles strengthen your immune system, researchers say

You have a deadline of two hours to hand in a report. Or perhaps you have just been told that you are due at a board meeting in an hour, to explain why your department should take control of a high- profile management project. Or you might be gazing from the open door of a plane, contemplating the clouds as you prepare mentally for your first solo parachute jump.

Most people would regard these scenarios as stressful. But Dr. Jos Bosch, a researcher at Ohio State University and expert on neuroendocrine immunology, says that we should welcome them for the sake of our immune systems. A short, active encounter with stress, he has discovered, can keep disease-causing pathogens at bay. "Our findings lend scientific truth to the idea that a hassle a day keeps the doctor away," he says.

Bosch and his colleagues have found that short, sharp bouts of stress produce high concentrations of "defence" proteins in the saliva. They studied 34 male volunteers, making them do two tasks. First, the volunteers had to memorize some material and take a 12- minute test to see how much of it they remembered. Secondly, they had to sit through a gruesome 12-minute video of surgical procedures. Both are examples of stressful situations but the first requires active, rather than passive, participation.

Before and after each activity, samples of saliva were taken. These are like chemical snapshots of the immune system -- the researchers were looking for immunoglobulins, a family of defence proteins that coat the outside of major organs, such as the lungs, forming a first line of defence against marauding germs.

The memory test pushed up the concentrations of secretory immunoglobulin A (SIgA), the most abundant of the defence chemicals. The video did the opposite, lowering levels of SIgA. Bosch concludes that the active stress of the memory test was beneficial: "Even being annoyed about something, particularly for a short time, could help to strengthen the body's defences."

The study, which also involved researchers from the University of Amsterdam, Vrije University in The Netherlands, and the Amsterdam- based Academic Centre for Dentistry, is published in the current issue of Psychophysiology.

Bosch says that the passive stress of watching traumatic videos depressed immunity. He suspects that the constant replaying of footage of the World Trade Center collapsing could have the same effect.

However, the researchers were unable to distinguish whether the increased levels of SIgA were because more was being manufactured, or simply because more was being ferried into the saliva. SIgA gets into the saliva by piggybacking on a binding molecule called secretory component (SC). Bosch found that the levels of SC in the saliva also shot up. Interestingly, SC concentration also went up when the volunteers were watching the medical video, even though levels of immunoglobulins dipped.

This work is a valuable contribution to the study of the effects of stress on immunity, an area of research which began several decades ago. "In the '80s, there was this dogma that stress was bad for the immune system," Bosch says. "It seemed that the New Age belief was true. But then people started doing experiments and getting conflicting results."

The conflict arose because of the different types of stress under investigation. Stress can generally be grouped into two kinds -- acute and chronic, with a grey area in between. Bosch explains: "Acute stress lasts for minutes, hours or even a day. It might be something like a work deadline, or a public-speaking engagement. Chronic stress lasts much longer than that, perhaps a week or more, and this is the kind of stress that affects those caring for an ill spouse, or dealing with bereavement. Then there is a grey area -- repeated bouts of acute stress can accumulate into chronic stress. Acute stress will activate the immune system but, at a certain point, too much stress will depress it."

Some individuals, such as extreme-sports enthusiasts, deliberately seek out short-term thrills, stresses and challenges. Previous studies have shown that these events provide a temporary immune boost. Bosch is uncertain whether the positive effects would be long-term.

He thinks that we may be subconsciously programmed to fight off boredom, because of the happy effect that being stimulated has on our biological defences. "I would not be surprised if we have an innate desire to seek out challenges and hassles," Bosch reasons. "Many of us do seek thrills. There is nothing worse than being bored."

This also raises the question of whether certain general personality types, such as thrill-seekers, are healthier than others. Some studies show that people with aggressive personalities die younger, yet other research shows, as Bosch puts it, that "nasty people live longer".

It may not be the personality that affects health, but the behaviours that arise from it. Conscientious individuals are more likely to be aware of health messages about smoking, diet and medical screening, and therefore to live longer.

Thrill-seeking can have its downside. Those who enjoy bungee jumping may also derive a high from drugs or alcohol which more than cancels out the benefits of leaping into the air attached to an elastic cord. That is why Bosch intends to study the effects of stress further. In the meantime, you can face that looming deadline with renewed optimism.

Under constant stress: Things change -- and usually when you're not in the mood. The result is stress -- but not all stress is bad for you.

The one thing that is constant is change. That's what the Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught. One of America's favourite stress gurus, Loretta LaRoche, grabs that philosophical ball and gives it a contemporary spin, saying, "The one constant you can count on is that things happen -- and usually when you're not in the mood for them."

People perceive how change itself is changing. It's accelerating: Just look at how computer programs are out of date within months, or the fact that the speed at which information doubles has now reached every one to two years. If you think change is whizzing along now, just remember, in 20 years you'll look back and call these the good old days, when time moved more slowly. It's all a matter of perception.

As change accelerates, so does our level of stress. As Canadian actor and comedienne Sandra Shamas points out, she sometimes looks forward to the time when she will have "stabilized" -- died, that is. So we better get used to the fact that as long as we're here, stress isn't something we can avoid.

In prehistoric times, stress came from having to find food or escaping from being dinner oneself. In our time, stress, rather than coming from physical threat, results from the social contexts we live in and the psychological and emotional reactions we have in that context. The list can be endless, starting with job conflict, aging parents, money troubles, health problems, e-mail, information overload -- just fill in the blanks.

Dr. Hans Selye, the pioneer of research into stress, said that since stress is the nonspecific response of the body to any demand, everybody is always under some degree of stress, even when they sleep, since the heart must continue to pump and lungs to function.

But is all stress negative? Are we overlooking the other side, that half-full glass aspect of stress? Certainly achieving peak performance is a goal for athletes. In reaching their potential, athletes must conquer stress, or better still, befriend it. The same goes for actors and performers, musicians, academics, and business people.

We tend to think of stress as a bad thing and yet without it we could not accomplish certain tasks. It comes in more than one flavour. You can have either distress (negative stress) or eustress (positive stress). One leaves you feeling drained and powerless, the other leaves you feeling energized. How often have you noticed that the same stressor affects people differently -- one person will thrive, while the other crumbles.

"Some of us are racehorses, and some of us are turtles," says stress expert Eli Bay. "Different people have different genes and different life experiences. What I may find stimulating may put you in the hospital."

Bay is the founder and director of The Relaxation Response Institute in Toronto. He's appeared in two series on stress and the relaxation response on The Knowledge Network, TVOntario and PBS television in the United States. Bay talks by phone from his office in Toronto. He's just been caught in traffic and is half an hour behind schedule. He sounds calm and cheerful. He doesn't rush the interview. He remarks laughingly that if anyone knows about traffic jams, it must be Vancouverites.

The relaxation response is an antidote to the fight/flight response. It involves triggering the parasympathetic nervous system by means of two techniques, deep breathing, sometimes called belly breathing, and mind focussing, says Bay.

The term was invented by Dr. Herbert Benson at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and used as the title of his 1975 book about his research into stress, blood pressure and meditation.

The best technique to achieve the response, says Bay, is breathing, because it can be done anywhere, in conjunction with focussing the mind on one thing. "The secret of triggering the relaxation response is a one pointed-ness of attention," he says, "Like observing the air coming in and out of your nostrils, notice your stomach rising and falling with each breath. It's focussing and choosing to let go."

The main thing, he says, is that when we are faced with a stressor, whether positive or negative, we should remember that we always have a choice, and that choice lies in how we wish to react. "The stuff that's coming at you, most of us have little or no choice over. We can wallow, or we can choose to consciously break out of the stress state."

He points out that just as the sympathetic nervous system is hard- wired into all of us to make us deal instantly with danger, the parasympathetic nervous system is hard-wired into everyone too. It just takes some practice to trigger it at first, says Bay.

With just a little bit of training and practice he says almost everyone can do it. "I've taught this to 10-year-olds and 86-year- olds, as well as to high functioning mentally handicapped people."

Bay sees stress as the spice of life. A certain amount of stress gets you motivated and brings out the best. "If you're driving down the highway and a truck cuts in front, you want to be very thankful that this reaction is automatic and instinctive." This automatic reaction or state of arousal is necessary. "It's a key ingredient in your life, even for the reproductive drive," says Bay. "Stress is part of what it means to be really human and it's served us well for a long time."

Negative stress can come out of seemingly productive or happy changes in a life. Bay says that a number of people winning the lottery have developed serious health problems both physically and mentally. "If you were married within the last 12 months, you would be allocated more stress points than if you were to be fired from your job. So it's not just bad things happening to people, it's adapting, it's change," he says.

Stress is part of us -- the issue is keeping it under control. "Never before have people been asked to deal with the volume of stresses that we are asked to today. We have to understand stress because it's not going to go away. We have to learn to co-exist with it."

Apparently our bodies systems haven't really changed in the past 40 or 50 thousand years of life on earth. Our stress response is still back in hunter gatherer mode. Asked if he thinks that if everyone meditated every day, that the human race would then evolve physiologically, and that our stress response would refine itself into a sleeker mechanism, Bay replies gently, "I do think so." In support of that he points out that Nobel prize-winning author Arthur Koestler, in his book The Ghost in the Machine, talks about our triune brain -- the reptilian, the mammalian and the human, working independently, and how they do not communicate well with each other. Bay has come across research that suggests that the relaxation response enhances the communication of our triune brain.

Before he launches into another meeting, Bay offers some practical advice for those of us who find ourselves in the morning traffic snailing our way across the Port Mann Bridge, or through Stanley Park.

Option one, he says, is that you could jump off the bridge or abandon your car. "For most people however, I would recommend just breathing. No one knows you're doing it. You're sitting in your car, just slowly inhaling through the nose and guiding the air down into the bottom part of your lungs. Notice that as you breathe in, your stomach rises, and as you breathe out it falls," he advises.

Ideally, after a couple of minutes, the unnoticeable car breather will get the hang of this diaphragmatic breathing. Then Bay advises to spend a couple of minutes just breathing slowly, filling the lungs from bottom to top. "Every time you breathe out, let the muscles relax a little."

What he says next, sounds either like magic, or whistling in the dark, but apparently it's true. "Physically what happens -- and only recently did western science twig on to this -- is that if you breathe as if you are relaxed, then you become relaxed."

Bay says that natural breathing literally affects the flow of stress hormones through the body. "If you want to change how you're thinking or feeling, change your breathing." Like stress, it's simple but not simplistic. "Perhaps it's too simple," Bay muses. "People like their Prozac."

The more practice, the more quickly a stressed person can get into the desired state. And with the state of Vancouver rush hours, there will be plenty of opportunity to put his recommendations to the test. After all, in Vancouver, change is always constant, even if you're not in the mood for it--like the back-up onto the Lion's Gate Bridge . . .