HEALTH: May 05, AU Edition

may05healthart.jpgTYPE-A FOR EFFORT
A little hard work never killed anyone, but coping poorly with it can do some real damage
Keep working like this and you’ll give yourself an ulcer!’ The year is 1982, and all they do is work, work, work. Late into the night and early into the morning on this damn fool scheme of theirs. These are driven men, mavericks, pursuing their research until finally one of them gets an ulcer.
And what was the grail these blokes were chasing? Proof that stress and personality are not the major factor in the development of peptic ulcers. The men were Australian doctors J. Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, and they intentionally gave Marshall an ulcer to prove their hypothesis, namely, that the bacterium Helicobacter Pylori (and not worry or stress) is what causes ulcers. It took a long while to persuade the medical world of this, so it is little wonder that many amongst us still believe stress causes ulcers, amongst other things.
Science has been hard at work on the stress-and-health connection for some time now, and it’s now very clear that – for rats – being confined in a small cage with lots of other rats, an unpredictable food supply, and the odd electric shock is definitely not a healthy way to live.
Human studies are not nearly so conclusive. For every study that sees a link, another one doesn’t. Time for some hair-splitting.
So-called ‘type-A’ personalities are hostile, impatient and competitive. Picture a red-faced fellow running across the road (can’t wait for the traffic lights), yakking into the mobile phone that is wedged between his shoulder and ear while at the same time shoveling a burger and coffee into his mouth. This type of individual is often described as a workaholic. He (or she) is also probably very good at his or her job, very likely feared and reviled by employees and underlings and, in all probability, proudly describes himself (or herself) as a ‘Type-A personality’. Everyone he or she knows warns them of their health risk. (Then again, when did you last meet someone who described themselves as calm and worry free? I just took an on-line stress test, and apparently my low score indicated that I am in severe denial about my stress. I think they were trying to sell me something.)

But if this hard-charging type-A isn’t destined for a stomach ulcer, then what kind of problems does he or she face? Although it runs contrary to conventional wisdom, having a ‘Type-A’ personality in itself has also repeatedly been shown not to cause heart disease. (In hospitals the joke is that this must be true, because cardiologists do not, as a rule, have particularly sanguine personalities). More often than not, it is how people choose to cope with the stress that brings them to grief.
Aggressive and high-energy workaholics do many of things to deal with their stress, and smoking and drinking (often a lot) is at the top of many a type-A’s list of hobbies. Thus high stress often appears to cause illness, when in fact it doesn’t. The stress causes bad behaviours, and the bad behaviours cause health problems.
Did I mention that there would be hair-splitting?
But this is a useful distinction, because behaviours like smoking can be changed. Of course, if society stopped rewarding angry men who work hard with nice jobs and lots of money that kind of behaviour might also diminish, but that’s another story.
The counter-argument that turns this on its head is one I hear a lot, and basically goes like this: ‘If I don’t deal with my aggressive feelings by yelling at people and slamming my phone down, all those repressed feelings will make me even more sick, even give me cancer’. Nice try, but no. Instead, it’s the same old story: genetics, diet, environment, smoking, booze, plus some other factors for some specific types, all cause cancer. Personality doesn’t.
But, despite the lack of a connection to heart and stomach problems, too much stress is definitely not healthy. Remember learning about the body’s fight or flight response in high school biology? Sense danger; flood body with stress hormones like adrenaline; in crease heart rate; make breathing rapid and shallow; constrict arteries near the skin (to curtail blood loss); increase blood pressure; release energy stores. All very, very good things to do if you happen to be cornered in a dark alley or need to flee a lion on the African veldt. But these physical responses to stress are of very little help in most offices – unless it is a particularly bad day.
One stress hormone that does have an impact on health is cortisol. This stuff raises blood pressure, increasing the work the heart has to do (fine in the short term, bad in the long) and suppresses the immune system, which means that it can lead to more infections and the like. Lots of cortisol, lots of the time, leads to lots of irritating colds and flus. So chill out. Take a deep breath and breathe out slowly. Now try to keep your blood pressure low and brace yourself for one last little nag.
And don’t even bother with ‘I don’t have time to…’ speech. If you’re a busy person, you don’t have time to be sick either, so take the time to look after yourself now.
Here’s the deal: Stress isn’t good or bad. But lots and lots of stress is bad. Go fix it so that disasters don’t happen constantly in your life, or failing that, teach yourself to cope better when they do. Practice saying the words, ‘thank you for telling me,’ instead of ‘what!!!!! How the !@#$…’ This works equally well for ‘Mummy, the dog did a poo on the sofa’ as, ‘Sweetheart, I love you, but I’m moving to Rio with the tennis pro’.
Also, stop doing all the things that really will shorten your life, and maybe even make it unpleasant while it lasts. Sorry. Let’s do that again. The cardiologist is going to say that. I’m going to say this: do one thing to be healthier. Maybe it’ll be enough. Maybe it will lead to other lifestyle changes. If you know you eat terribly, and you don’t want to change, at least take the odd vitamin. Run to the shops for your smokes, instead of driving. Drink with dinner, instead of for breakfast, that kind of thing. For my money, I’d start with exercise.
Even if it feels terrible the first twenty times, it will actually start to make you feel good. You will enjoy it, your mood will brighten, and you’ll sleep better. Maybe you’ll smoke less and eat healthier as well. It’s also easier to start doing something and make a new habit than it is to break an old one. If you think you might be getting a bit overwhelmed with stress or have some niggling physical problem, see the doctor. She’ll probably say what I said, only in a bossier tone, but better safe than sorry.
Look, you know what you’ve gotta do, so do I. I’m just going out for a run. To the shops…