Managing stress a daily challenge over a lifetime

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In the early '80s, Richard Haverlack couldn't figure out what was wrong with his health.

Ambitious and conscientious, the Westinghouse engineer turned manager wasn't feeling normal back then and worried he might have a medical problem. He wasn't sleeping well. He was gulping down antacids for heartburn.

"I was on edge and anxious about everything," the retired 65-year-old Hampton resident said.

Nowadays people understand what's going on in these cases, but it was still a mystery 30 years ago: Mr. Haverlack was stressed out.

He didn't realized stress was his problem until Westinghouse offered a stress-management program in 1981. He went on the retreat that taught "transcendental meditation" -- the key method used decades ago to manage stress.

"It was tremendously helpful," Mr. Haverlack said, noting it helped not to be near a telephone and to enjoy exercise. "That course was the beginning of my understanding that this could be dealt with and that it was not inevitable that I had to feel this way."

The realization also prompted him to rake through his memories to understand why he would be burdened by stress.

"I look back and look for certain things. I didn't have an ideal childhood. I see that factor in childhood contributed to this. Without a doubt I had some things that I was predisposed to," he said.

Early traumas in life, including abuse and loss of a parent, can lead to chronic stress that can persist a lifetime, often a shortened one, unless one takes action to cope with it. A person's stress levels also can burden those around him and her, including colleagues, friends and family.

"I was pretty much an overachiever in my day and that led to behaviors not too pleasant for the people around me," Mr. Haverlack said, noting he had a short temper and was irritable. "But you hurt yourself the worst. It takes the biggest toll on the person, but everyone else gets caught in the condition."

Even after the Westinghouse retreat, he continued to struggle with stress, prompting a visit to his doctor. In the 1980s, Valium (diazepam) commonly was prescribed for anxiety disorders.

"I didn't like taking it because it adversely affected my life and work," he said. "Back then, that was the cure-all. Take a tranquilizer, and you'll be fine. But that was all wrong. The problem was between the ears."

"Between the ears" refers to the brain's overresponse to stressful moments, as if one's life were in danger. The brain releases hormones -- adrenalin, neuroepinephrine and glucocorticoids -- that shut down parts of the body not necessary to face or flee the threat. Even in daily situations involving a criticism from the boss, an unexpected duty or a tight deadline, the brain acts as if the situation is do or die.

To return to normal, the brain releases the hormone cortisol to counteract the stress hormones. But those experiencing chronic stress fail to release sufficient cortisol, causing stress to persist. The result is immune response of inflammation that can be necessary to heal a wound or fight an infection but persistent and unnecessary inflammation.

Excessive inflammation leads to heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, gastric and inflammatory bowel disorders, rheumatism and other autoimmune diseases, along with anxiety disorders and depression.

Throughout his career, Mr. Haverlack attended stress-management programs. But stress eventually took its toll when he received an arterial stent to treat cardiovascular disease. No one in the previous generation of his family, nor his siblings, have heart disease.

Eventually Mr. Haverlack enrolled in an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program taught by University of Pittsburgh immunologist Bruce S. Rabin, the noted stress-management expert. For the first time in 30 years, Mr. Haverlack said, he finally understood the science of stress and how stress-management techniques turned off the flow of hormones. He began realizing how childhood problems he declined to discuss made him psychologically predisposed to chronic stress.

"It has causes and understanding them is useful," he said. "You can treat this condition with his program. But another dimension to understanding it is that there's nothing wrong with me. I'm just a product of my environment and my life to this point. It's not a shortcoming."

In retirement, Mr. Haverlack, married for 41 years to his wife Aggie, volunteers his time to write memoirs for people in hospice care. He's already written 15 of them. The stress of self-imposed deadlines is countered by the rewards of completing memoirs for people in the final stages of life that become prized works for the person's family and friends.

Those lives, he said, also put life in perspective for him, including military veterans who survived the horrors of war and others who struggled through the Great Depression.

"Stress management is a journey, not a destination," Mr. Haverlack said. "To continue the metaphor, Dr. Rabin provided me with a detailed road map, and I am grateful that he has done such a thorough and useful job of preparing it.

"I am lucky that my stress was partially managed. I look back and say, 'Yeah, that was a close call.' The way I was driving myself was a bit self-destructive and not good for anyone else."


David Templeton: or 412-263-1578.


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