Former Surgeon General Talks about Stress in America

Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., recently sat down to talk with National Institutes of Health Director, Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., to talk about the public health consequences of stress in America—how stress is affecting us and what we can do about it.

Ongoing stress can hurt our mental and physical in a variety of ways. Approaches such as regular exercise, social connections and contemplative practices can help.

It’s important to remember when talking about stress that not all stress is bad, Murthy noted. Limited stress over a short period of time can help us perform better, in a sports competition or on an academic test, for example. Short-term stress is adaptive and can assist with healing and with performance, Murthy noted. He suggested an analogy of lifting weight in a gym. If you lift for brief periods with rest in between, you can build up your muscles. But if you were to hold weight for hours and hours, it may do damage to you. Chronic stress, over the long-term, can increase Inflammation in the body and Increase our risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, anxiety, depression and other illnesses.

Murthy relayed a story of speaking before hundreds of college students and asking, “How many had experienced an almost unbearable amount of stress in the past month?” About 95 percent of the hands went up. He then asked how many felt they had tools for dealing with that stress in a healthy way, and less than 5 percent of the hands went up. That experience, Murthy noted, helped him to realize the lack of attention being paid to addressing stress and emotional well-being. “We’re missing a major contributor to our health and how our country functions,” he concluded.

One potential contributor to stress for many people is increasingly fast-paced workplaces. “The idea of being overextended has become the norm,” Murthy said. Health concerns for ourselves or for family members can also be a tremendous source of stress. Chronic lack of sleep, which can take a tremendous toll, can be both a contributor to and a consequence of stress. Sleep allows our brains to regenerate and form memories and bodies to heal.

One most powerful antidotes to stress, Murthy noted, is social connection. For example, facing a challenging health condition can be much less stressful when faced with the support and compassion of family, friends and others facing similar challenges.

Many of us are connected to many people on social media. But is our social media connection really helpful? Researchers have found that it can be helpful, but can also contribute to negative feelings. As Murthy explained, when you use social media as a weigh station It can be helpful in improving your connection and diminishing stress, but it can be problematic when used as a destination. For example, if you’re going on a trip and go on Facebook to look up friends to meet up with, it helps reduce loneliness and increase connection. However, if you’re feeling lonely on a Friday night and go on Facebook to see what friends are doing, it may end up feeling like everybody else is having a great time and you’re not.

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Murthy discussed contemplative practices, such as meditation, as another important tool to help address stress and enhance our emotional well-being. Murthy also stressed the importance of exercise in reducing stress and promoting overall health and well-being.

Murthy called on health care providers to be more sensitive to the illness stress causes. He urged everyone to think about how to incorporate ways to reduce stress into all aspects of our everyday lives—in the workplace, at home, at school, in recreation and leisure activities.


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