The small change Wellness Coach


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Work and Worry Will Kill a Mule

June 02, 20236 min read

“Hard work ain’t never hurt nobody, but work and worry will kill a mule" was one of my mother’s choice phrases that I heard when we kids got out of line. There were 10 of us so I heard it a lot. Her bottom line was that she was not going to allow us to worry her to death with our foolishness.

The responsibility of raising ten children is unimaginable to me. But the burden of doing it alone results in overwhelming stress, regardless of how strong you think you are. Over time, it wears you down physically and/or mentally. For Mama, it was a heart attack in her early forties. Thank God she survived it. Otherwise, my younger siblings would have become orphans.

When it comes to human behavior, there’s a big difference between knowing and doing. Most of us know what's best when it comes to smoking, but not everyone can do better by abstaining. The surgeon who goes outside to smoke after removing a patient's diseased lungs knows better, but, at the time, can't do better. Regardless of the circumstances, we all do the best we can.

Mama knew better. But when it came to doing better, which meant managing stress, she did the best she could at the time. Her focus was keeping a roof over our heads and making ends meet. She worked two full-time jobs, one inside the home and the other doing domestic work outside the home. Some days I would hear her say that she was so tired that she could barely put one foot in front of the other, but she kept going. It wasn't until after the heart attack, followed by a diagnosis of diabetes that she learned of some things she could do to keep stress and worry at bay. And then she did them.

There is no such thing as living a stress-free life. Only the dead can do that. But the longer you ignore stress, the more it silently wreaks havoc on your well-being, affecting every organ and every system in your body. In his classic book, The Stress of Life, Austrian physician Hans Selye defines stress as the body's nonspecific response to any demand. His extensive research posits that life is largely an adaptation to the stresses and strains of everyday existence (both good and bad), and our ability to keep what he called distress at a minimum is the secret to health and happiness. Selye described the physiological changes the body experiences in response to stress as General Adaption Syndrome (GAS), which occurs in three stages.

The first stage is the Alarm Reaction Stage which immediately kicks in when stress occurs for the first time. To better understand this stage, imagine suddenly being attacked by a vicious animal. Your pupils dilate, your blood pressure and heart rate increase, you breathe faster, and your muscles are tenser as your body prepares you to either outrun your attacker or stand there and fight for your life. This stage is often referred to as the "fight or flight" response to stress, and unfortunately you can only fight or run from your attacker for a short time before moving on to the second stage, the Resistance Stage.

In the Resistance Stage your body attempts to repair itself. No longer under attack, your blood pressure and heart rate return to normal. Your muscles are relaxed, and you breathe a sigh of relief. This is the critical stage where ideally you've learned your lesson and start to adopt stress management behaviors such as avoiding situations that place you at high risk of being attacked. If not, the body moves to the third and final stage, the Exhaustion stage. This is the stage where if left unchecked, you wind up in a clinic or hospital.

In the Exhaustion Stage stress begins to manage you. It drains your physical, emotional, and mental resources to the point that your body never receives a clear signal to return to normal functioning, leaving it no choice but to do what it can to protect you. So it continues to secrete extra hormones; your blood pressure and heart rate remain high. It becomes harder for you to relax. You find yourself experiencing changes in sleeping, eating, and bowel habits, to name a couple. Left unchecked, you eventually wind up seeing a healthcare provider.

That the body is uniquely designed to repair itself is nothing short of miraculous. Like a complex computer that operates using hardware and software, the body's organs and systems keep it functioning properly. But the sad reality is that higher-level functioning humans do a poor job of helping the body perform at optimal levels. Some of us may treat our computers better than our bodies. For example, when the energy level is low on our hand-held computers, we quickly find a charging station. But when the energy drops in our bodies, we often ignore the warning signs. As a result, we forget that we are not invincible and instead keep going and going and going until exhaustion sets in.

Exhaustion resulted in a heart attack for my mother in her forties. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it's the leading cause of death in women and can affect us at any age. Over 60 million women (44%) in the United States are living with some form of heart disease. Exhausted women are also plagued with high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, strokes, autoimmune diseases, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), depression, and anxiety and I am convinced that prolonged stress is the culprit.

in most, if not all conditions. I'm also convinced that you avoid becoming a statistic when you learn to manage stress. If you pay closer attention to your body's warning signs, you significantly lower your risks of being diagnosed with a chronic condition. If you've already been diagnosed with a chronic illness, it's not too late to make lifestyle changes. It's what my mother did, and I am grateful that they kept her around for 30-plus additional years.

Maybe we humans could learn from mules. They are a hybrid male donkey/female horse cross best known for their strength and stamina. In countries from North Africa to Southeast Asia, mules pull carts to market, carry people across rough terrain, and help their owners till the soil. Able to cross rugged terrain that other forms of transport can’t reach, they have been used in combat. In the 1980s, the US military used over 10,000 mules to carry weapons and supplies through Afghanistan. Another phrase I heard growing up is "he was as stubborn as a mule;" a phrase most often used with negative implications. But those who understand mules would caution you not to be fooled. The animals are highly intelligent, and their stubbornness means they are more cautious and aware of impending danger. In simple terms, they know when to shut down. Sounds pretty smart to me.

So when it comes to health, make the small change: work hard to manage stress and when it comes to worry, be as stubborn as a mule.

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Myrtle Russell

Myrtle Russell, the small change Wellness Coach.

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