It would be great if stress were an exotic flu or an illness that needs a cure. It's our bad luck, though, that stress is far from exotic, and we know exactly how to fix it. This has allowed stress to have the perceived virulency of a hangnail. So under the radar it's off the radar, stress has exploded to an invisible, $1 trillion health epidemic, according to Peter Schnall's Unhealthy Work. That's more expensive than the cost of cancer, smoking, diabetes, and heart disease combined.
It's an astounding enough fact to be in Ripley's, yet one we've never heard of. And there is more hidden from view. Stress is a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death -- heart disease, cancer, stroke, lower respiratory disease, and accidents. An estimated 75 percent to 90 percent of all doctor visits are for stress-related issues.
There seems to be a trend here. Illness and stress. Spending wild amounts of money and stress. The culprit behind so many of our health problems is staring us in the face. Want to cut chronic diseases and health bills? Start with stress, the crisis at the heart of the health care crisis. Want to cut the deficit? Encourage policies that prevent and manage stress, and lop off a few hundred billion bucks.
Of course, stress is more than numbers. It's a daily crucible for millions of us. I meet a lot of people caught in its vice-grip as a work-life balance and stress management educator. Away from earshot of work colleagues, people pull me aside to confide the toll stress is taking. I met a 29-year-old government worker who had an assortment of illnesses you'd expect to see in someone in their 70s. A man in his 40s at an aerospace company told me about the heart attack he'd had two months earlier. He managed to get another position at the firm to get the stress down, but the new position was even more stressful. On the legal frontlines, an attorney told me, "Everyone I know is on Paxil!"
If there were an America's Most Wanted for health problems, stress would be at the top of the list. The U.N. calls stress the 21st century health epidemic. So why does it continue to remain out of sight and out of mind for policy makers and health insurance when it's ravaging so many lives and bankrupting the nation? One, stress is thought to be normal and no big deal. Two, stress is considered a personal, and what's worse, mental problem with no effect on anyone else. Three, there has been no social or political movement to challenge stress as there has been to fight smoking or cancer.
The good news is that we can do something about the latter and in the process fix the other two. I've launched a campaign to fill the grassroots void called Smash Stress. We have a very specific health care policy petition I hope you'll check out and sign here that calls for stress screening and management for all. It only requires an executive action, and it could transform health in America. I hope you will join the Center for Social Epidemiology, a group of the top stress researchers led by Peter Schnall, to get stress out of the back alleys of personal agony and into the forefront of public health policy. We have the opportunity to do something historic right now.
The problem is that we've been treating the symptoms of stress -- heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes -- instead of the cause, stress itself, and shutting that down. Our petition calls for reversing that approach, adding stress screening to the preventive services of the Affordable Care Act. There are currently 16 preventive services covered by the law (22 preventive services for women), from colorectal screening to depression screening. We are asking President Obama and Health and Human Resources Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to add stress screening, the most important preventive measure of all, to the law, as well as accessible and affordable stress management. This is a doable executive action that fits perfectly with the Administration's National Prevention Strategy, which states that, "preventing disease and injuries is key to improving America's health."
Can signing a petition do anything? Ask Dena Patrick, of the social volunteering site wishadoo.com. She submitted a petition at change.org calling for health benefits for part-time FEMA workers, who didn't get any. They get health benefits now, because the administration changed the policy after her petition attracted 112,000 signatures. We can do it too and save millions of lives and billions of dollars.
Collective action helped change social behavior around smoking. Sarah Speck, a cardiologist at Swedish Hospital in Seattle, calls stress "the new tobacco." Like nicotine and tobacco, it constricts blood vessels. Also like smoking, stress is another default habit that requires social intervention to change the attitudes that create it, both for stress perpetrators and reactors. With knowledge and social sanctions, it becomes less acceptable, more costly, more stupid to engage in stress.
We know how to manage stress. We just need to get the information out to everyone.
Smash Stress is lobbying the surgeon general and the CDC to sponsor vigorous, ongoing stress awareness and prevention programs.
We've been sold the idea that stress is some kind of personal flaw whose demons we alone must bear. Though it's not infectious, stress is highly contagious. It's easily spread between workmates, spouses and significant others through "pass-along strain." It drives the hair-trigger emotions and false crisis mentality that spill out into the accident and crime reports of our communities and make our world more angry, panicked, sleep-deprived, and dangerous than it needs to be.
Maybe we can say someday, beginning with action on stress screening and management today, that we made our world a less angry, healthier, safer place to live.
Joe Robinson is a work-life balance and stress management educator, speaker, and author of Work to Live, Don't Miss Your Life, and the Email Overload Survival Kit. You can find his work at www.worktolive.info and the Smash Stress Campaign at www.worktolive.info/stress-campaign.
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