Don’t Let Stress Damage Your Health
Whenever a patient says they are “stressed,” I ask: “good or bad?” Being out of a comfort zone, time constraints, high demands, and feeling unprepared is often bad stress. Good stress may be due to a job change, a move, a new pet or baby, or a busy work or social schedule. Good stress allows you to accomplish goals and meet time challenges. Bad stress can leave you feeling tired and distracted, unable to focus, and frequently making mistakes. Overwhelming or uncontrolled stress, whether good or bad, can lead to self-destructive “coping” behaviors like heavy drinking, overeating, or skipping healthy habits such as exercise or sleep.
When you feel the physical signs of stress—heart racing, muscles tensing, breathing changing, and sweating—you are experiencing the body’s fight or flight response. This response and release of adrenaline is designed to keep you alive under physically stressful conditions. Modern day mental stressors trigger the same response. Stress in manageable amounts can allow you to build up “stress immunity.” Stress in overwhelming, frequent amounts, can lead to potential health disasters.
Prolonged stress has been known to be the cause of medical misfortunes such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, headaches, skin conditions, and digestive issues. Illnesses such as viruses and infections can become more frequent and severe. Pre-existing medical conditions are made worse by stress. When combined with a diagnosis of depression, stress can actually be deadly. A recent study in the Journal of Circulation reported combined high levels of stress and depression raises the death risk by 48 per cent.
When stress is constant and overwhelming, anxiety disorders and panic attacks may occur. These detrimental side effects can trigger serious health problems including high blood pressure or heart arrhythmias. Stress often leads to sleep deficits such as insomnia, frequent night waking, or not enough sleep time. This can result in memory problems, hormone imbalances, and overall poor performance which may put jobs and relationships at risk. Mental stress can also lead to physical accidents due to feeling distracted and exhausted. These accidents may result in health compromising surgeries or other serious medical situations.
So what should you do?
If you feel your health is at risk, or you are experiencing repeated symptoms such as headaches, digestive issues, shortness of breath or tingling, see your doctor to evaluate underlying or secondary medical conditions. Medications to help with sleep, anxiety, blood pressure, or gastrointestinal disturbances can be life changing. Often just talking with a health professional including a therapist is therapeutic.
Just as you take care of your body with exercise and good nutrition, taking care of your mind to manage stress will lead to improved health. How you perceive a stressor is as important as what the stress and body’s response is. Studies have shown that seeing a stressor as a challenge instead of a threat makes it less stressful. As Dr. McGonigal writes in seeing The Upside of Stress, feeling stressed is evidence you are successful!
Getting rid of unnecessary stressors will go a long way to preserving your mental and physical health. If you are the type to volunteer for everything, learn to say no. If you can hire extra help to make your work or home life easier, do it. If you are the one who does it all in your family, ask for help. Reevaluate your most stressful days, eliminate the tasks you don’t need to do, learn to delegate responsibilities to others, and don’t feel obligated to make excuses for saying no.
Finding a pleasurable activity and making it part of your daily or weekly routine is also key and something everyone deserves. Your stress relieving activity should be easy, relaxing, calming and restorative. Mindfulness is a current buzzword linked to stress management and implies being present and appreciating sights, smells and sounds that surround you. This can be mentally healing; focusing on small positives allows the mind to filter out negative thoughts and replace them with positive calming happy thoughts. Mindful, stress relieving activities should be individual to you but may include singing, playing and listening to music, coloring, deep breathing, or even hobbies such as crafting and cooking. Of course, activities such as yoga and tai chi have proven stress and health benefits.
Other credible stress reducers are the healthy habits of exercise and sleep. Sleeping a bit longer or napping 20-40 minutes in the afternoon can clear out brain waste and assist in mental health which allows better coping with stress. Exercise does not have to be exertional. 20 minutes light exercise… walking, sweeping, yoga, biking is all you need.
Find instant stress stoppers that work for you. Make sure you can do them in a minute or 2, like taking deep full breath, counting backwards from 10 repeatedly, playing with a pet, drinking a cup of tea, reaching out to a supportive friend, reading a funny joke, looking at a beautiful scene or picture, chewing gum, or squeezing a stress ball. Do these stress stoppers when you start to feel your body’s stress signals such as shoulder shrugging, quick breathing, finger tingling, the start of a headache or sugar or alcohol cravings. Stress signs and stoppers will be individual for you.
Final tips to help you preserve your health by controlling stress:
Be aware of your own physical signs of stress so you can prevent it from becoming unmanageable
Think of stress as a challenge, not a threat
Keep a list of mini relaxing activities you can do instantly
Prevent overwhelming stress by scheduling a pleasurable activity daily
Talk about your stress with a supportive friend or family member or a professional therapist
Say no to nonessential stressors
Remember every day is a new day to try your stress management techniques. Don’t give up! With practice, you will be a stress management maven!