Maybe it’s money trouble or the burden of caring for a sick relative. Maybe it’s your job or the stress of juggling your family’s schedules. Whatever the cause, everyone seems stressed out these days.
Modern life frequently gives us little time between periods of stress for our body to recuperate. This chronic stress eventually takes a mental and physical toll, causing both short- and long-term changes to your body and mind. But the more we understand how stress affects us, the more we can learn about coping with it.
It’s long been known that blood pressure and cholesterol levels go up in people who are stressed. Studies have now linked chronic stress with cardiovascular problems like hypertension, coronary heart disease, and stroke. The immune system is also affected by stress. Research has shown that wounds in people under chronic stress heal more slowly. And caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease, who are often under great stress, are more likely to get the flu or a cold.
Brain cells bombarded by stress signals have little recovery time and eventually start to shrink and cut connections to other brain cells. That may explain why studies have linked higher levels of stress hormones with lower memory, focus, and problem-solving skills.
People who are stressed out tend to do other things that make their bodies less healthy and more vulnerable to the effects of stress. If you’re stressed, you tend to get less quality sleep, which throws the stress hormones off balance and affects your ability to control your mood and make good decisions. Some people under stress eat more fatty comfort foods, which can lead to obesity and diabetes. They may smoke or drink more, raising the risk for cancer and other diseases. And they often feel they’re just too busy to exercise.
Coping with stress:
Not everyone deals with stress the same way, but you can learn techniques to help you cope with the stresses of modern life. A healthy lifestyle, for instance, can complement mainstream medicine to help treat and prevent disease.
Stay active. Being physically active helps keep the body’s systems in better shape and better able to deal with any demands from other stressful conditions. Just 30 minutes of walking each day can help boost mood and reduce stress.
Build a social support network. Stay in touch with people who can provide emotional and other support during difficult times. Ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations to reduce stress due to work burdens or family issues such as caring for a loved one.
Do things that make you feel good about yourself, mentally and physically. Create peaceful times in your day. Try different relaxation methods until you find one that works for you. Seek help from a qualified mental health care provider if you’re overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, have suicidal thoughts, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope.
Get proper health care for existing or new health problems. Recognize signs of your body’s response to stress such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed, and having low energy. Explore stress-coping programs, which may incorporate meditation, yoga, tai chi, or other gentle exercises.
Set priorities. Decide what must get done and what can wait, and learn to say no to new tasks if they are putting you into overload. Avoid dwelling on problems. Note what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.
If you still find yourself too stressed out, talk to your physician. Many therapies are available to help you deal with stress and its consequences. The effects of being chronically stressed are too serious to simply accept as a fact of modern life.
Melanie Blake, MD, is an internal medicine physician at Erlanger’s Academic Internal Medicine.The physicians with Academic Internal Medicine provide comprehensive medical care for adult patients with acute or chronic illness. To make an appointment with one of these doctors, call 423-778-8179 or book an appointment online at Academic Internal Medicine.