It has been called the widest epidemic of our era but most of its symptoms are so common that its identity remains hidden to many people. The opening salvos may consist of headaches, insomnia, mild depression, anxiety, skin disorders, muscle pain and constipation. As the effects dig in, symptoms can escalate to high blood pressure, asthma attacks, an inability to concentrate, ulcers, arthritis, panic attacks, colitis and immune deficiencies.
And if the problems are sufficiently intense and prolonged, it is heart disease and - increasing numbers of researchers believe cancer that may bring the course of this ailment to its devastating conclusion.
The malady, of course, is stress, and for those who continue to believe its effects are solely psychological, a mountain of evidence has risen to set them straight, much of it growing from the efforts of the renowned Canadian pioneer in the field, Dr. Hans Selye.
In continually provoking a flood of adrenalin-related hormones through tense response to everyday activities, the high stress person -who is in the majority in developed societies today - is literally engaging the blood system to assail bodily tissues, including the vital organs.
Stress is an arousal state," says Eli Bay, founder of Toronto's Relaxation Response Centre and well known for his regular programs on TVOntario, Alberta Access and other educational networks.
'Our bodies react to any change with a fight-or-flight response, which is an evolutionary adaptation from when we were hunter-gatherers. "This stress reaction is great in an emergency, but when it's a chronically engaged response, it's wearing and tearing, putting a strain on every organ, every physiological system, every cell in the body."
Ask why stress levels seem to keep rising in recent decades and you'll get any number of answers, but there's one that keeps recurring in North America: Too much to do in too little time.
"We're working a whole month more each year than we did in 1973," says Bay, who teaches relaxation methods through public courses and to a wide range of corporate groups. "That whole Type A approach of needing "to do" has to be offset by periods of just "being."
There's little debate that reducing stress can not only slow the onset of conditions that shorten life, particularly hypertension and heart disease, but also improve the quality of life with an increased sense of wellness and healthy vigour (as opposed to frenetic energy).
To look at how we can do that, however, let's ask what are the attitudes and behaviours that set up the problem in the first place. In his analysis of business personalities, author Phillip Goldberg formulated the following set of traits characteristic of the type A or high-stress personality.
These are not meant to imply criticism, only to underline patterns a great many of us are caught in:
* Living with a constant sense of time urgency, creating deadlines even where there were none, always trying to do more with less time;
* Being on a quest for numbers, measuring everything by dollars or quantity as a way to feel a sense of achievement;
* Insecurity of status, whatever the outward appearance of confidence. with a constant struggle for recognition;
* Reacting with competitiveness, aggression and even hostility to everyday matters, feeling challenged by each nuance.
Goldberg goes on to note some of the specific behaviors that may signal that high-stress approach to life.
Are you constantly impatient, agonizing in lineups or traffic?
Do you often try to do two things at once?
Do you have nervous gestures such as clenching your fist or grinding your teeth?
Do you feel guilty when you relax for a few hours?
Do you always feel pressured by time?
Do you move, walk and eat rapidly?
Do you find yourself competing even when it isn't appropriate?
"Most people are so habitually stressed that they have no idea that they are," remarks Bay, who has noted an "exponential increase" in the number of people these days complaining of such severe symptoms as panic attacks.
"I can't tell you the number of people who have come through my centre who have been through all the medical tests."
The irony is that while the impact of stress on the body is often dramatic, its source is not an organic site.
The bad news, then, is that stress is not often enough diagnosed as the cause of the problems; the good news is that the antidote is often not a drug or surgery but a learned skill of relaxation.
Bay readily allows that his methods come from sources as old as yoga and meditation, although those terms are eschewed in favor of such descriptions as deep breathing and visualization.
Like aerobic workouts, a relaxation regimen (which needn't be an oxymoron) could be approached with just 15 or 20 minutes a day, at least four times a week. Exercise, a nutritionally balanced diet, sufficient time for sleep and a conscious effort to soften the edges of our driven approach, all help.
The rub is that change is inherently stressful, and no one doubts we live in a time of extraordinary change. So we can't eliminate change and we can't always even alter our circumstances - but we can learn to respond differently to what happens to us. Dr. Selye, the great stress authority from Montreal, always said: "Fight for your highest attainable aim, but never put up resistance in vain".