Saturday, October 24, 2009


It has been said by some wise guru on a mountain top, probably in India: If stress doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger. There is a lot of capital “T” Truth in that statement. But why, you might ask, am I so stressed-out much of the time? And, do I have to get close to losing my “marbles” before learning to cope with stress and life? Allow me to play the modern-day-on-the-computer USA guru and answer these questions.

The brain and body’s Stress Management System (SMS) evolved when we were prehistoric, hanging around caves and ferocious man-eating animals. Thus it paid off to have a very “nervous” nervous system. The SMS overreacted to all threats outside of the cave but immediately relaxed when we were in the safe comfort of our homes. It turned “on” when we needed to be aroused and “off” when it was time to relax. A perfectly balanced system, if you will.

These days, the “on” switch is still very active, but we’ve lost the natural ability to turn the system “off”. Somewhere along the way of becoming “modern”, the SMS got overwhelmed. Think about the big “T’s” in our lives, that is TV, traffic, tariffs, terrorism, even too many tweets. Thus, we are walking the streets of our lives considerably out of balance. That’s why you’re so stressed-out. And that’s why you feel like you’re on the brink of losing your “marbles”. (A good analogy for brain cells: One bangs against another through neurotransmitters like serotonin and noradrenalin and a host of unpredictable, excitable reactions occur).

Okay, have I gotten your attention? Good! Stress research has come a long way in the last few decades since I wrote my first book, From Panic to Power: The Positive Use of Stress (Performance Management Publications, Atlanta, Ga.) It delineated case after case of the brain’s ability to have negative effects on the body. Unfortunately, there were more than a few professionals who were not impressed. “It cannot be” they said.

So here’s the good news: The naysayers, for the most part, have been convinced. When you go to your doc, he/she is now likely to say: “Your medical tests are within normal limits. I think you’re having a stress problem. Here’s an expert I want you to see”. Hooray!!! We’ve come a very long way.

So how are these scientific breakthroughs in stress management going to help you? First, if your doc says “go get professional help”, follow the advice. There a plenty of savvy counselors, Psychologist and Physicians who specialize in stress management these days. Call your local and state professional associations for a referral. Really, that’s a good idea.

Secondly, future blogs will focus on stress management techniques that can help: relaxation training, thought modification, assertiveness training, and many others.

And third, as I’ve stated before, I will help you distinguish between problems that are amenable to advice and self help versus those that absolutely require a professional. In the meantime, thanks for paying attention, and may your habits be calming and health-enhancing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Stress has two distinct faces: One says “Take me seriously. I’m chronic and long-term. I need professional advice”. The other states “Relax, I can handle this. Learn from me. I’m here today, gone tomorrow.”

When I teach stress management, I often look to the face for clues to the depth of brain and body problems. A seriously stressed individual – even after relaxation training – will hold tension in the corrugator muscles (that crease between the eyebrows), the eyes will appear tense and distant, and the jaw muscles will be clamped shut, as if to say “life is a grind”. What I observe further down the body correlates with the overly braced face: rapid breathing, clenched fists and fidgety legs.

On the other hand, many people respond nicely to a relaxation technique. After one session of training, they drop from stressed (5 to 10 on my stress scale) to the relaxed end of the continuum (0 to 4). They report an immediate tension-reducing effect and feelings of well-being. Their brain/body system is still flexible and amenable to change. And the face tells an important part of the story: no crease in the corrugators, relaxed eyes and jaw, as well as positive changes in breathing and overall muscle tension.

This distinction between serious and short-term stress is critical because it predicts who will respond to advice and self help, and who should out a professional.

SHORT-TERM STRESS. Acute, short-term stress is the brain and body’s way of meeting a challenge. You start a new job and are stressed-out for a while, feeling anxious, worrying, even losing some sleep. You may grumble a bit about your new boss and poke fun at yourself for not trusting your talents. After learning to cope effectively to this new life event, your symptoms of stress subside. A perfectly normal reaction to life’s threats and challenges. Stress lite, if you will.

SERIOUS STRESS. Chronic, long-term stress is a different animal altogether. It’s the tiger that continues to claw at it’s prey long after the battle is won. Or the turtle that continues to hide in its shell when the coast is clear. For example, marital conflict that persistently triggers pervasive anxiety, depression, sleepless nights and distancing from loved ones is serious. A case of stress that begs for professional attention.

The primary mission of this blog will be to focus on the acute, short-term variety of stress that is amenable to advice. I will teach you to become a stress-watcher. One who monitors his/her brain and body’s reactions to everyday hassles – your worries, fears and unhealthy habits. You will learn to become a stellar stress manager as well. And just when you think that I’m taking my “self” and stress too seriously, I might insert a humorous diversion. Humor is good stress medicine, and I will take advantage of the brain chemicals that flow when we poke fun at ourselves, forget about taking life too seriously and experience a good belly laugh.

I will write about:

…How stress triggers crooked and irrational thinking;

…How powerful feelings take our logical brains hostage;

…Why the jaw clamps down in the middle of the night and heart rate soars when we least expect it;

…Why stress and unhealthy habits make perfectly dysfunctional unions;

…How our love relationships seem to be the biggest stress triggers of all; And, of course,

…How to manage the stress beast when it rears its ugly head in your life.

The second mission of this blog is to remind you to stop and check yourself out. To encourage you to be ruthlessly honest with your “self”: Are you perennially anxious? Is it tough for you to shake a negative mood? Has marital conflict gone beyond the realm of self help? Has your alcohol and drug use – even over the counter and prescriptions medications – become excessive?

Is it time to seek professional help?

You would never think of fiddling with a faulty gall bladder. That’s a job for your GI doc and /or a surgeon. Don’t contemplate self help or media advice - even from a professional – for serious stress symptoms. That’s as dangerous as trying to shoot an alligator in your back yard with a BB gun.

Via this blog, I will try to direct you to the right counselor, Psychologist and/or Physician.

Remember…Don’t take your “self” too seriously. On the other hand, serious symptoms are never amenable to self help or media advice. They demand professional help. Learn to notice the difference.

Goodbye for now. And may your habits be calming and health-enhancing.

Dr .John j. Parrino