For a really outstanding book, "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" ends pretty weakly. The author did a great job of everything except the very last chapter -- hell, the guy even managed to make the "notes" section interesting. Too bad the big shorcoming was the chapter in which he promised to give us some good advice about how to deal with our stress.
Amusingly, it kinda reminded me of a facebook disagreement i got into with some bro in the (you guessed it) ZC group; he had just discovered "Deep Nutrition" and thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bacon! I commented that I was disappointed with it. Not that Dr. Shanahan didn't have interesting stories to tell and points to make (which are actually in just about every other ancestral/paleo book i've ever read, and most blogs as well); the big problem is that unless the start of your life was on the ideal side, there's only so much you can do about your future. I pointed out that, if one has not reproduced yet, there's still time to give your kids what you might not have had, but that an old broad like me is more or less screwed.
And so it is for the stressed amongst us -- we wouldn't BE stressed if we didn't have the genetic and conditioned predisposition, after all! The best chance to enjoy a life in which the troubles are viewed as challenges and the failures roll off our backs, IS TO HAVE BEEN BORN INTO A STABLE, HEALTHY, SOCIALLY-ACCEPTED, WELL-OFF FAMILY IN THE FIRST PLACE. I don't know about you, but i haven't figured out that can be arranged -- even with a time-machine there would be a lot of difficulties to overcome.
In fact, the best advice i've found for managing stress came from "Why Isn't My Brain Working," "The Magnesium Miracle," and the inkling i got from a magazine, many years ago, that B-vitamins can be helpful. Then, there are a few little tricks that i've learned on my own, which i'll return to later.
WZDGU doesn't really suggest anything that we haven't heard a million times before. Exercise, meditation, social support, therapy.... The best thing about this chapter, though, is that the guy has a practical mind and a sense of proportion. He says this stuff CAN help, but he cites the work of a couple of his favorite researchers about the shortcomings of each approach.
"When do these principles [...] work and when are they disastrous to apply? There are some rules." Exercise is good ...if you like the activity and want to do it; otherwise it's -- ahem -- even more stressful. Meditation works for those who choose to do it, WHILE it's being done -- beyond that, nobody really knows. This is one of those things that you can't really study in a randomized trial with a control group; how would you tell people NOT to sit quietly and reflect, which is basically what meditation IS?
A sense of control and predictability are discussed at length and widely shown in human and animal studies to be helpful in minimizing stress reactions, but in real life their practicality is limited. If you could predict and exert control, you wouldn't be unprepared for X, or stuck in a traffic jam because some idiot ahead got in a wreck, now would you? ;-) And as i wrote the other day, believing one has some control may be good for minor stressors -- if it isn't illusory -- but it's horrible in catastrophic ones.
"Having an illusory sense of control in a bad setting can be so pathogenic that one version of it gets a special name in the health psychology literature. ... As described by Sherman James of Duke University, it is called John Henryism. ... John Henryism involves the belief that any and all demands can be vanquished, so long as you work hard enough." Trouble is, this only potentially works in a meritocratic system. In modern America, for less-privileged classes or in other biased systems, it doesn't. People have been known to literally work themselves to death -- hence the name.
"The realm of stress management is mostly about techniques to help deal with challenges that are less than disastrous." Some people CAN cope magnificently in the face of catastrophe, but that's an n=1 situation -- "that’s never grounds for turning to the person next to them in the same boat and offering that as a feel-good incentive just to get with the program. Bad science, bad clinical practice, and, ultimately, bad ethics."
"Social support," too, may be counterproductive, as when one's networks are not truly supportive. I'm sure we've all gone to someone for comfort -- a pat on the back, an encouraging word, a shoulder to cry on -- and experienced the emotional equivalent of a bucket of icewater in the face. Some poor devils really learn who their true friends are the hard way. Religion and spirituality, though of use to some people is completely out of the question for others. It can't even be studied properly -- any retrospective is questionable and far from objective. Prospectively ... well, how do you assign your randomized groups and get them to believe in something on demand?
According to the author, learning to respond flexibly seems to be the only solid foundation when it comes to coping: if what you try first isn't doing it for you, doing the same thing MORE is unlikely to improve the situation; the patient must shift gears and try something different if s/he wants different results.
"Physical stressor, you want to activate a stress-response; psychological stressor, you don’t." It seems to me that glucocorticoids for physical stressors is kinda like an insulin-response -- you want a low baseline, and when the need arises you want ENOUGH but not too much, and you want a quick recovery.
He doesn't tell how to do that.
I've found a few tweaks, though. If your start in life wasn't ideal -- and i'm willing to bet that the vast majority of us did NOT have that privilege -- the very first thing to do is become nutrient-replete. Being short of any nutritional requirement will cause undue physical stress. Magnesium, particularly, gets chewed up at a faster rate when we're stressed, as well as B-vitamins. I think the carb-craving that comes upon people when life is crazy is actually a hunger for B-something.
When during the last year, i was suffering some pretty nasty stress, i consulted "Why Isn't My Brain Working?" -- a book which DOES offer some very sound suggestions from the point of view of a DHSc and DC who has clinical experience. Working from his suggestions, i found a supplement which supplied a little GABA as well as its precursors, and got a lot of relief. The book has LOTS of supplement suggestions along with a discussion on various nutrients and neurotransmitters they support.
As described before, magnesium helped me significantly this winter too, at about twice the RDA's suggested dosage. It's VERY easy to get into a vicious stress-circle, wherein an infection starts using up our "immunity stores," driving a deficiency, which makes the illness/stress worse, which makes the deficiency worse, ad infinitum. Just ONE bad day's eating encourages my h.pylori to act up, which lowers my stomach-acid, which screws my digestion, which lowers my thyroid-function, which impairs my digestion more, which makes me more nutrient-deficient, which lowers GABA, which adds to stress, which lowers dopamine .... You get it.
Ya wanna know the cheapest, easiest trick to raise dopamine which is the motivation-neurotransmitter for DOING THINGS to make you feel better? Sit down and play a video game you love. In the rush to demonize the activity that is blamed widely for obesity, why is it ME who has to point out that VIDEO GAMES RAISE DOPAMINE?
Yep, you heard it here first, folks. When you're sitting in the evening, so drained that the very thought of taking a walk makes you feel even more exhausted, pick up your laptop or ipad. Whatever you do, do NOT read the news or that "social medium" which tends to make everyone angry and frustrated! No, start up a solitaire game, or Flow, or JewelQuest (one of my favorites), or Bookworm, or whatever floats your boat. For every game you win or board you clear, your prize is a feel-good hit of dopamine!
Armed with the neurotransmitter of pleasant anticipation, who knows -- maybe you'll be motivated to take that walk and enjoy it, or devote a little time to meditation, or even to call your mother.