From the Dean: Stress, Big and Little

From the Dean: Stress, Big and Little

I get stressed every morning driving on M-14 into Ann Arbor on my way to work to promote public health. I wish all sorts of pestilence and plague on the slow-moving drivers in front of me. (Don’t they know I’ve got a ton of good work to do?) My stress is compounded by the fact that it now takes me three changes of light to get off Business U.S. 23 onto Depot, and then there’s the ultimate impertinence: somebody’s parked in my parking spot, and I have to walk an extra six feet!

I’m keenly aware, of course, that the stress of my daily commute is quite trivial compared to the basal level of stress from which many suffer—not knowing where the next meal is coming from, not having access to healthy foods or good schools, to a clean environment or basic health care. And then there are the acute stressors, such as the loss of a loved one, that can lead to psychic and emotional displacement from which some of us have a tough time finding our way back. This kind of stress pays no attention to race, socioeconomic status, educational background, or place of birth.

Big or little, trivial or traumatic, stress is a factor in many of the most challenging public health problems confronting us today. Stress has been linked to violence, substance abuse, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Stress can increase our susceptibility to infectious disease, depression, and other serious conditions. In its power to damage both body and mind, post-traumatic stress occupies a category of its own.

As members of the public health profession, we need to address this ubiquitous threat to human health and well-being. We also need to learn to manage the stress in our own lives—which, as my daily commute so sharply reminds me, is not easy.

Researchers tell us the more tolerant we are of little stressors, the more resilient we are to the big ones. So, in addition to understanding the stress that afflicts those with whom we partner in the global community, we must seek to understand what creates stress in our own lives, and to find both personal and collective means for dealing with it.

Frankly, some of our stress is self-inflicted. Most of us live in a world of sensory overload. We’re bombarded by messages, passive and active. We don’t allow our minds time for rest. We don’t sleep—recent studies show that Americans, especially, don’t sleep sufficiently. We are a work-oriented society, and many developing nations are adopting our bad habits. We multitask, in part because technology lures us into thinking we can handle superhuman loads in both our personal and professional lives, and we teach future generations to follow our example.

Our frenetic lifestyle is also stressing our globe. We are burdening our environment by creating unsustainable communities—built environments that actively prevent people from pursuing healthy behaviors. We construct homes next to factories, and factories next to waterways. Many of our cities have too little green space and too much concrete.

We’ve assumed that there is an almost infinite capacity for the environment to absorb the punishment we inflict on it. The same is true for our bodies. This leaves us with the difficult but intriguing question: are the new and innovative solutions we devise for addressing the complex challenges of our age merely going to replace old stressors with new? Are we going to go blithely ahead and create a whole new set of problems for the next generation? Or are we going to think in a more comprehensive and integrated fashion about the costs and benefits of a particular course of action as we seek to address old problems? Such a comprehensive look must take into account impacts on both human and environmental health.

From a physiological standpoint, we know that a limited amount of stress can be beneficial. There are proteins and physiological pathways that allow our bodies to adapt to stress. That’s what exercise is— you stress the muscle, it gets stronger. In a healthy life, achieving that balance between good stressors and bad—and seeking to provide that balance for others—seems to me to be a primary goal of public health.

So now I’m thoroughly stressed out about the fact that I stress out on M-14. And in an effort to be an exemplary leader, I promise to chill out on the way home tonight.

-Martin Philbert

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