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The Relaxation Response

I’ve spent the past several years really focusing on staying calm when faced with the sort of day-to-day difficulties that used to set my teeth to grinding. It’s now all about deep breathing, meditation, everything-is-impermanent, reality-is-ephemeral — that sort of thing.

So when my doctor called me last week to tell me my latest blood test results were in, I didn’t immediately freak out when I heard that all the numbers pointed to a serious case of hypertension. “It’s worse than before,” she reported.

This is moderately confusing, I thought, breathing deeply. I eat right, exercise, meditate (which has long been shown to reduce anxiety), and don’t feel like I carry around a lot of worries. So how could I be a candidate for hypertension? Besides, according to researchers at North Carolina State University, geezers who’ve survived major episodes of stress (business failure and bankruptcy, anyone?) are actually much more resilient that those who’ve avoided anxious moments.

Chronic Anxiety and Dementia

This is not a classic case of denial. I understand that stress can be a “silent killer.” (A new study out of the University of Southern California showed chronic anxiety increases the risk of dementia.) And I admit that there’s plenty of genetic baggage I’m lugging around (my father and all of his siblings suffered from heart disease; my older brothers each take meds to lower their blood pressure). But nobody I know would suggest that I’m anything but a laid-back fellow, and I cannot say that I exhibit any of the symptoms of hypertension . . . because I frankly don’t know what they are.

And I’m apparently not alone. The folks at the American Institute of Stress note that “What we call ‘essential hypertension’ is neither a discrete disorder nor a distinctive diagnosis.” It is, they explain, “more of a description than a diagnosis,” and generally triggered by a high blood-pressure reading at a doctor’s office (as it was in my case).

The deeper I dig into this stuff, the more confusing it becomes. Am I stressed and just don’t know it? Or is my doctor simply responding to conventional indicators from a blood test, which may or may not signal a real problem? Which is causing me stress? Which I refuse to recognize? (Hypertense people tend to practice denial, I’m told.)

Excessive Anxiety and Aging

Digging ever deeper, I found a piece in Aging Well that explained it all this way: “While the state of anxiety — an experience of tension and apprehension — is an ordinary response to a threat or danger, excessive anxiety that causes distress or interferes with daily life is not a normal part of the aging process.”

The difference between anxiety disorders and ordinary worries, the authors note, can be identified by what they call “perceived distress and ability to function.” Those with chronic anxiety tend to complain of chest pains and shortness of breath. They may have eating and sleeping disorders, seek to isolate themselves, and abuse alcohol and other substances.

Looking at it from that point of view, I should be in the clear, it seems to me. But I know my doctor is going to want to see me — that’s her job — so I’ll be faced with another round of grave conversations, more nutritional supplements (and probably more pressure to start taking statins, a new view of which I stumbled upon in this TED talk), and who knows what else.

But I’m not going to stress about it. Because, as My Lovely Wife pointed out when I divulged the latest test results, why keep doing the same things when their own numbers indicate it’s not working?

The great thing about this ephemeral, impermanent life we live is that we get to make our own decisions about how we’re going to live it. So I’m going to veer off in a completely different direction. MLW has been seeing a specialist in Nutrition Response Testing and having excellent results, so I made an appointment.

I feel more relaxed already.

Thoughts to share?

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