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Is it All in Your Head?

Psychological Stress & the Stress Response

It turns out there is an abundance of truth to the saying, "It's all in your head." And few conditions demonstrate how the mind influences the body as well as stress. How you think about and respond to external conditions - your friendships, your marriage, your coworker, traffic or spilled coffee - is likely to determine your vulnerability to stress-related illness.

In the 1960s, groundbreaking work by Canadian psychologist, Ronald Melzack and British physician Patrick David Wall, showed that a patient's emotional state is largely responsible for the chemical activity in the spinal chord that signals pain between body and brain. Positive emotion diminished the perception of pain while negative emotion kept the floodgates open. Two soldiers with nearly identifical injuries might respond in markedly different ways: "Let's go! I need to get back to my unit!" versus "The pain is killing me!"

Why Some Cope, Others Don't

Over time, studies consistently show that you are less likely to cope with psychological stress and be more vulnerable to stress-related disease when the following is true:

  • You have no control over what is happening
  • You aren't getting predictive information (here it comes; this is how bad it's going to be)
  • If you lack emotional and/or physical outlets for anxiety and frustration
  • If you choose to interpret things for the worse
  • You have no social connections or community that you can turn to for support

Modify and Reflect

You can reduce psychological stress on several fronts:

  • Modify your work and personal life so that fewer stressors occur
  • Recognize and accept what you can and can't control
  • Strive to build a more predicative environment so that stressors are less stressful - ask questions,seek advice, share information with others
  • Incorporate exercise and thoughtful reflection into your daily life

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