What we can do about the physical and emotional violence of chronic stress made manifest

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Updated Mar 12, 2021

Fueling Truck Stop Night Fuel Hours 2017 05 05 13 45

The last count I took, there have been at least 12 reported shootings or stabbings at truck stops over the last years, not to mention the fights and beatings. Several of all have been on the fuel island. One of the riskiest jobs in America (for just one view of all this) is becoming riskier. Tempers are short, pressure has mounted, stress levels are reaching critical mass.

Last week I had a driver intentionally shove me out of my lane, not once but twice, because I was not passing him fast enough in heavy traffic (even though I was already above the posted speed limit). It did not matter that in order to do it he had to tailgate the car in front of me. It did not matter that the only place I had to go was into a restricted lane for trucks — and I had to crowd a four-wheeler to do that — to avoid him taking my hood off. He clearly did not care that I was on the clock, too, and traveling at the safest speed I could without tailgating. Evidently, I was holding him up, and he felt he had more right to the lane than I did. One cannot hear about these things and wonder why.

Is it because drivers are feeling stressed and pushed? Or is something else going on?

I think stress and the pressure of feeling pushed have reached levels beyond anything we have ever seen since the implementation of ELDs. In the last year, I have seen arguments between drivers over the time one driver spends on the fuel island. I have seen drivers snap over other drivers blocking them at truck stops because they are double parked and refuse to move, either because they themselves are stressed or because they think their ELD won’t let them.

But ELDs aren’t solely to blame. In today’s fast-paced, push-shove trucking environment (and much of the same outside of trucking, to be honest), a lot can be attributed to the physical effects of chronic stress.

According to the National Mental Health Association, around 18 percent of Americans suffer from mental illness of some sort. It stands to reason that out of 3.5 million truckers on the road today, a similar percentage are hurting, too. Given the sad state of insurance for treating such issues medically and more obstacles, you can be sure many are getting no help.

Writing last year for Psychiatric News, Jan Yun referenced studies showing that from 1999 to 2014, Americans taking an antidepressant increased by 65 percent. As a society, we spend more than $89 billon on a specific class of such drugs (SSRIs), an increase of more than 50 percent since 1982. It is estimated that more than $193 billion a year is lost productivity due to mental illnesses, in addition to $267 billion in health care costs. All of these contribute to “absenteeism, illness, employee turnover, and even theft and sabotage,” which ultimately “can add up to more than [a] company’s profits,” as noted by the authors of the 2014 “Mind/Body Health” educational text.

The authors go on to spell out the consequences that stem from our individual responses to stress, which set off a complex sequence of psychological and biological events in the body encompassing more than 1,400 known physiochemical reactions. Physical reactions can be anything from headaches, backaches, insomnia, tightness in the neck and shoulders, indigestion, loss of appetite or the opposite, a pounding heartbeat – all are common. This “general adaption syndrome,” a phrase attributable to endocrinologist Hans Selye, elicits three major stages: Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion. In the same way our body’s immune system goes through a similar reaction when it is triggered to ward off bacteria or respond to wounds, mental stress creates significant reactions within the body, causing a chain reaction that can eventuate in physical disease.

In one study referenced in “Mind/Body Health,” people who identified as “hyperaroused” – very, very stressed, basically — were 1.8 times more likely to develop ulcers than others. One of the most common effects of stress are “functional bowel disorders,” such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), nonulcer dyspepsia (chronic stomach pain), and esophageal spasm. Stress is documented as a chief contributor to heart disease, causing blood pressure to spike, which weakens the protective inner lining of arteries. Fats are deposited in those arteries, blood vessels narrow, and circulation is slowed, increasing the probability of clotting. Once clots begin to form, additional fatty deposits occur, and arteries become rigid and inflexible. Result? In the worst cases, heart attacks and strokes.

Stress can also elevate levels of serum cholesterol. It is believed inflammation caused by stress weakens the immune system, allowing bacteria or viruses to take root and decrease immune response.

One of the greatest dangers of stress is the effect upon the metabolic system. The authors of “Mind/Body Health” also lay out the group of issues known as “metabolic syndrome” – abdominal obsesity, cholesterol issues in the blood contributing to the buildup of plaque in the artery walls and elevated blood pressure (contributing to clotting), and “proinflammatory state,” with elevated levels of certain proteins in the blood, among other effects.

Insulin resistance or glucose intolerance is another major concern. Insulin resistance is greatly worsened by stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). Stress hormones drive the blood sugar up to provide energy to fight or run — but when stress is chronic and running or fighting is not the solution, the high sugars and resultant obesity often lead to diabetes and its complications.

People with metabolic syndrome are at increased risk of not only coronary heart disease and other diseases related to plaque buildups, but also type 2 diabetes. It’s estimated that more than 50 million Americans have metabolic syndrome, and its likelihood increases with chronic stress. According to the American Psychological Association’s stress survey, overweight people report more stress and use junk foods for comfort. Recent research shows job stress is a distinct risk factor for metabolic syndrome.

OK, Clifford, but what we can do about it?

Psychological toughness increases not with isolation and cynicism, but through things like optimism, a sense of control, social support and practicing mindfulness techniques. Physical resilience depends upon genetics, environment, adequate sleep and proper nutrition. Research also shows how we cope with stress can lessen the impact of stress on our immune system, as does our ability to control and predict stress, thereby decreasing the physical aftereffects of stress.

Truckers can utilize things like taking short breaks (a less-rigid clock in an hours rewrite might help here, FMCSA, if you’re listening) with moderate exercise such as walking around the truck and trailer a couple of times. Likewise: Getting a pet for comfort, companionship, and exercise. Explore the environment you find yourself in at the next stop: Get out of the truck and discover the attractions in the area, or utilize local support groups to lessen the isolation of the job.

Drivers can and should also build a social network they can reach out to via the communications tech we all carry, whether basic phones, smartphones or our on-road laptops. In addition, we must get back to building camaraderie, not tearing it down and throwing it on the nearest unfortunate dung heap in the parking lot.

How do we do that? Encourage one another, help one another, and above all else take a deep breath and realize that other driver is trying to do the same job as you, just as safe as they can, and with the same pressures as most everyone else. We all want to get home to our families. Let’s help one another do just that.

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