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Stress – The Epidemic of the 21st Century

Gary L. Flegal, Ph.D.

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Disease is a dynamic process that takes place within the human experience. Our bodies are in constant struggle to maintain optimal functioning so as to minimize our experiences with disease. The last century has seen more progress in dealing with some of history’s most deadly afflictions, epidemics, and conditions than in any previous period in all of history.

Consider that at the beginning of the 1900s, the number one disease from which people died was influenza and complications thereof. The diseases of today that top the  list are heart disease, stroke (diseases of the circulatory system), and cancer. The numbers of people who die of these diseases far out-distance the numbers from our grandparents’ day, but even so, these are completely different types of diseases from those that were of historical concern. Heart disease, cancer, and stroke are not contagious. Their causes lie chiefly in the health behaviors of each and every individual — factors which each of us have the opportunity to influence — and thus the name “Lifestyle Diseases.”

The public health movement of the last 100 years has taught us many valuable lessons regarding the transmission of disease and how to prevent its spread. Vaccines and inoculations are now routine because they inhibit, or block the disease process for contagious diseases. How do we block the disease process for health problems that cannot be helped with medications and “miracle” drugs?

Taking our lessons from history, we have learned the root causes of such diseases and how to inhibit their development. This has led to the wellness movement in healthcare, and the development of a new branch of care — Behavioral Medicine.

Behavioral Medicine is the science and art of learning how to influence the state of health by practicing healthful behaviors as opposed to unhealthy ones. But even more than that, research continues to show that practicing healthful behaviors has positive influences in the fight against contagious disease as well as lifestyle disease.

The major modifiable risk factors for our number one health problem, heart disease, are:

  • smoking,
  • high blood pressure,
  • high blood cholesterol,
  • physical inactivity, and
  • obesity.

Each of these can be positively influenced by behaviors over which each person has choice.


There is no doubt that tobacco use, in any form, is the number one contributor to the destruction of the human body. Smoking contributes to many health conditions, including heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Smoking has but one kind of treatment — quitting. However, we know that this is not as easy as it sounds. The best advice is to keep quitting until you succeed. (click here for help)

High Blood Pressure and High Blood Cholesterol

High blood pressure (hypertension) is a health risk that can be brought under control easily by most people and their physician. The same can be said for high blood cholesterol. Each of these can be easily ascertained by highly reliable tests. There are three major kinds of treatments for high blood pressure and high cholesterol: medications, dietary interventions, and moderate daily physical activity.

Physical Activity

Regular physical activity is essential to optimal functioning of your body. Consider that we were designed to function in a farming-based world that required physical activity in the form of manual labor. However, our society has changed to the point that now, unless you choose to be physically active, it is almost assured that your body will not get even a moderate amount of daily activity. Remember the old saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” As applied to the condition of the human body, nothing could be more true.


Carrying around excess body fat is a complicating factor for many health problems, and the major cause of obesity is overeating. For every extra pound of body tissue, your body must produce, maintain, and pump blood through several hundred extra miles of blood vessels and capillaries. Overweight conditions are still best met with realistic expectations (no more than 1-2 pounds of weight loss per week) while eating slightly less and exercising more.

Stress – The Major Epidemic of the 21st Century

Got Stress?

Stress is the major epidemic of the 21st century.

Consider that each of these risk factors provides a strain or stress on the body. Another way to say this is that they cause the body to be out of balance and to experience “dis” – “ease.” “More than 80 percent of all disease has a direct link to stress, making stress the major epidemic in our society.” This quote is from my colleague, Richard W. Garman, M.D., who is probably stating the case conservatively.

Consider the word “disease” again: “dis” – “ease” — literally to be in a condition of “un” ease, or feeling uncomfortable, or less than optimum. The idea of expanding upon the meaning of this word is not to create a nation of hypocondriacs, but rather to help us understand the disease process so that we can move into the arena of preventing disease.

Up until about 25 years ago, I was a very typical American in how I related to my body and its care. I believed that the body was simply a tool to be used to get the “real” me (my mind, which resided in my head) from place to place.

Using this separated mind and body model, I would pretty much ignore the minor pains and ailments of my body. Those that I could not ignore, I would cover up with large doses of various over-the-counter (OTC) medications on a daily basis.

When a person takes medication for extended periods of time, it becomes less effective, thus making even larger doses of medication necessary for it to provide the same level of relief. Of course, this increases the work that many of your internal organs (liver, kidneys, etc.) must do to cleanse these foreign substances from your body. Your body is working harder (stress), the actual reason for the problem (stress) is only masked, not cured, and, as your body works harder against both the misused medication and the problem that is still there, your immune system becomes over-loaded and begins to work less efficiently. This whole process could be summed up in two syllables, or one word — disease.

We live in a society where the norm is to have 50 or more stress episodes daily, while each of us lives in a body designed to handle three or four stress episodes per week (read this sentence again). The truth is that many of us have learned to tune out many of the stress events that happen simply because they are regular occurrences — they happen every day. However, just because a stressor takes place every day and we get used to it doesn’t make it un-stressful. It simply dulls our awareness of it. But the impact on our body is just the same. An example of this is a ringing telephone. Every time you hear a phone ring it produces a stress response — it startles. Phones are designed to get your attention. So just because you are used to something, doesn’t mean it is no longer stressful or causing dis-ease.

Mind/Body, or Behavioral Medicine relies greatly on the individual’s awareness of self. Unlike medications that can be pumped into your body if necessary, Behavioral Medicine requires the individual to take charge.

The process of disease is a part of the human condition. In concert with the medical science of the last several hundred years, Behavioral Medicine provides healthcare practitioners with the latest and most up-to-date methods to keep each of us optimally well.

Best of health to you all, and remember to be good to you!

Copyright © 2012 by Gary L. Flegal, Ph.D.

Dr. Gary Flegal is a Behavioral Medicine and Health Specialist with a doctorate in “Health Education and Human Performance” from Michigan State University. He is an exciting and accomplished presenter and keynote speaker, presenting seminars for groups and companies on location and at conventions. His advanced training in stress management came to him while working in affiliation with the original Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard under the direction of Herbert Benson, M.D. and his staff. In addition to corporate presentations, Dr. Flegal keeps a busy schedule working with individual clients for a variety of stress-related issues, including anger management, quitting smoking, learning to relax and manage stress, and learning self-hypnosis.

Dr. Flegal’s other passion is magic. He has been a professional magician for over 30 years and continues practicing his art at every opportunity. These two passions work together beautifully as he illustrates stress management concepts with fun, visual, and “magical” demonstrations in his stress management workshops and seminars. It also allows him to share stress management with his magic audiences wherever he goes because “Laughter is the Best Medicine!” Gary also possesses Master level training in Reiki, a hands-on healing therapy. Gary Flegal is also a Certified Consulting Hypnotist, certified by the National Guild of Hypnotists.

Dr. Flegal’s specialties include stress management, anger management, positive behavior change, insomnia, smoking cessation, and exercise physiology. For individual appointments, speaking engagements, or more information, contact Gary at Professional Stress Management Services in Nashville, Tennessee, at (615)812-7280 or through his Web site:



One thought on “Stress – The Epidemic of the 21st Century

  1. Well formulated and useful information and health promotion material. Excess stress is indeed rising to high levels despite improved health services and knowledge. It is a cultural, social and behavioural reaction and outcome of life style choices and responses to how we live now in this high technological age. Relying on just bio-medical solutions proves to be insufficient in the long term, to remedy the effects of excess stress and the lack of ease caused in mind and body. Have we lost the magic of living a more balanced life?

    Posted by Paul Sanyasi | November 13, 2012, 5:37 am

Posts by Dr. Gary Flegal

November 2012


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Stress can cause severe health problems if not managed properly. In extreme cases stress can lead to physical symptoms which can even cause death. While stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, the information on this website is for guidance only. Readers should seek the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
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