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Nothing can be more heart-wrenching than the sudden death of a loved one. The visualization of a wrench tightening on the heart is apt. It can feel that way and the physical harm done from such intense pressure is not good for your health.

Isaac Asimov, professor of biochemistry and prolific writer of science fiction, said, “Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It’s the transition that’s troublesome.” It’s troublesome for the individual at death’s door, certainly. But it’s also tragic for family and friends. It’s devasting – and lasting – for a life partner.

If we are lucky enough to face the trauma of a heart wrench only once in life, we might not need to worry about it. But 2020 is defined by chronic stress.

Extreme stress causes rapid production of adrenaline, a hormone that makes your body race. Your heart picks up speed. Breathing quickens. Blood pressure skyrockets.  

It is what happens when you exercise. But sudden extreme production of stress hormones or prolonged periods of elevated stress do more harm than good.

Sometimes it can kill you. Take the case of Josephine Ann Harris, who went into cardiac arrest and died just two hours after a surprise visit to her restaurant by President Barack Obama in July 2012 – an unfortunate example of the high price of too much excitement.

Stressors happen to us all the time: a loose dog growls, a child runs carelessly across the road, or a stranger rings the doorbell at night. These are the events that trigger your hypothalamus, a small region in your brain, to send alarms that launch the production of cortisol. Whereas adrenaline speeds you up, cortisol builds up glucose in your bloodstream, feeds these sugars to your brain, and activates the mechanisms that specifically control motivation and fear. Cortisol also shuts down entire systems considered unhelpful distractions in a fight-or-flight scenario, such as the digestive and reproductive systems.

Hopefully, these stressful times come to an end, and the body recovers. But for some, the trauma endures, for instance, with the death of a spouse. The stress of losing a life partner is magnified when a spouse needs to make decisions about end-of-life care, or worse, is relegated to bystander status while doctors perform heroics that steal dignity from death.

Intense stress can come from other sources too. Fear of needles, spiders and heights can be managed. A bad divorce less so. Getting divorced is stressful in many ways. But the damage to your health caused by relentless high levels of anxiety can compare to a death in the family.

When stress hormones stay activated over extended periods of time, your body can’t return to normal function. Regular functions of eating, sleeping, and even establishing memories are crippled by sensors constantly beaming an “under attack” message.

Experts believe that genetics may play a role in determining how susceptible we are to stress and how strongly our systems fire up or cool off. But life experience plays a part too. We can see the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder in the careers of military personnel, police officers, fire fighters, crime survivors, and, especially in 2020, our front-line health care workers.

It’s hard to prepare for life’s toughest challenges. But it’s worth taking steps to relieve chronic stress. First and foremost, think twice before popping pills. This is a recipe for more trouble. Instead, surround yourself with good friends who lift your spirits.  Volunteer in your community or go for long walks. Find your funny bone and fuel it with good humor. And seek help from professionals if you sense you are stuck in a rut.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is a graduate of the University of Toronto and the Harvard Medical School. For more than 40 years, he specialized in gynecology, devoting his practice to the formative issues of women’s health.

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