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Stanford Medicine

Mental Health

Summer stress

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Is anyone out there having a relaxing summer? Please, speak up if you are – it’s hard to hear you over the health care reform yelling matches. Anyone?

Okay, maybe some lucky souls are relaxing on beaches far from town hall meetings and mass media. Still, anyone watching the TV news or lurking on internet comment boards in the last few months could easily conclude that our nation’s collective blood pressure is through the roof. We’re stressed that we’ll lose our jobs, or that we won’t ever be able to retire. We’re stressed that health care reform won’t pass – or that it will. We’re stressed that our soon-to-be landlord just tried to amend our lease to prevent us from flushing toilet paper down the commode. (Oh, was that just me? Never mind, then.)

Given all we have to worry about, today’s Science Times piece on stress seems particularly timely. It turns out, Natalie Angier reports, stressed-out brains are likely to get stuck in a rut. Or, as Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky says in the article:

“We’re lousy at recognizing when our normal coping mechanisms aren’t working. Our response is usually to do it five times more, instead of thinking, maybe it’s time to try something new.”

Angier focuses mostly on some research that made the rounds a few weeks ago. The study found that stressed-out rats failed to respond to new circumstances, instead falling back into old habits (in this case, pushing a bar for food pellets even though food pellets were available without all that backbreaking bar-pushing). Though these rats recover after a few stress-free weeks, humans have a tendency to fret, Angier writes, pushing their stress levels up despite the absence of immediate triggers.

So, how to chill out? Well, you could get a dog, meditate or stop and smell the roses. Or you could follow Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel’s advice and watch the news in moderation.

But if all else fails, I hear Cute Overload is a known cure for all landlord-related ailments.

Previously: Michelle Brandt on stress and sleep
Bonus timely stress link: Mental stress training is planned for U.S. soldiers
Photo by ernest figueras

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