Sunday, April 12, 2009

Spring and Finals

So, another semester is nearing its end. And I am starting to stress, as is often the trend in the last two weeks of school. But the stress is more of a controlled stress than it has been in the past. Perhaps I have become slightly conditioned to the stress and I am just now finally learning that the best strategy when the amount of work increases is to pace myself and stick to a plan. Education is not only about learning material, but it is also about learning the skills needed to master the amount of work for each class. Intelligence may be the innate ability to pick up new concepts, but patience, planning, collaboration with others, and enduring to the end are learned behaviors that are essential for survival. I have had to work hard at learning these.

In the research paper that has consumed my entire semester, I am discussing the role of exercise on patients 55 or older who already have a diagnosis of mild to moderate heart failure (congestive, classified by the New York Heart Association as Class II or III). Up until 15 years ago, clinicians (doctors and physical therapists) were scared to exercise these patients for fear that increasing the workload on an already inefficient heart would be detrimental and even fatal. However, groundbreaking new research shows that exercise is absolutely essential to maintaining heart function and that if the exercise is performed below an ischemic level, it can actually reverse some of the characteristics of a failed heart. Ischemia is a lack of blood flow to the heart, which can kill heart tissue and conducting cells, causing myocardial infarctions (heart attacks). In exercising individuals, ischemic levels are subjectively felt by the patient as angina, chest pain that is specific to the individual and is felt in different ways by every single patient.

I mention this research because it has become something very intriguing to me and also because it illustrates the great benefit of managed stress. The ability to push past our limits of comfort is part of makes us human. Physically, we have the ability to overpower what our muscles and joints are telling us because of the highly sophisticated brain that we have. Few species can claim this ability. Pushing on in schooling, work, recreation, exercise, and in every other area of our life causes an increase in amount of stress we have to handle, sometimes beyond what we are currently able to do.

When controlled, this is classified as eustress (verses distress), or good stress. It is essential for us to develop good habits of spreading out our stress out over time so it does not occur all at once. Just like exercising a heart, if we have an onset of stress all at one time, we will have a figurative heart attack, or manifestation of a failed system of control. Instead, gradual increases in stress will lead to increased performance, decreased limitations, and seemingly exponential outcomes of success.

If we could educate teachers, bosses, coaches, etc. on this principle of gradually increased stress, then we would all be better off. The phenomenon of it all is that even though it is proven to be more healthy to do all we can to gradually increase stress over time, we procrastinate dealing with anything stressful because it is seen as "hard". We remember the last bad experience we had with something "hard" (usually something involving unhealthy amounts of distress around a time of a final, project, or two-a-days in soccer) and associate poor thoughts and emotions with those stressful experiences.

Excessive amounts of stress cause unique and reproducible symptoms in different people, just like angina is a different feeling that is reproducible in the same way for every person with congestive heart failure. Angina is described by some as a pressure in the chest. Some feel aches in the abdomen or stomach. Some develop pain in the upper extremities. On the other hand, stressful situations cause some people (hopefully who don't have heart failure to also complicate things--lack of heart disease is always at least one thing to be grateful for) to become very tired, others to become mad, and yet others to feel worthless, incompetent, or inferior. In order to refrain from pushing into a level of inefficiency of the heart in patients with heart failure, the exercise is stopped. The patients rest until the angina goes away, and then can continue, with less intensity than was previously pushed to. It is called a symptom-limited exercise stress test.

Maybe it would be beneficial for all people (myself included) to have something similar to a symptom-limited exercise stress test, broadly measuring the effects of all stressors. It can familiarize one what symptoms are felt at unhealthy levels of stress. Knowing what types of situations stress one out, what signs are present when stress is too intense, and when to stop pushing so hard will save people from continuing into dangerous zones where inefficiency sets in.

Good luck to everyone with your tests, projects, papers, work loads, and recreational stresses! The challenge is to keep the stress gradual. That is my goal!