FEATURE — We’ve all experienced stress in some form or another. Whether you have positive stress — the kind that motivates you to perform well — or negative stress, the symptoms caused by your stressors can have a real effect on your health.
We may not even realize how stress affects us. Perhaps we shrug off a headache or fatigue when we experience it, but oftentimes stress is the culprit. So, what exactly is stress and how does it influence our health?
What is stress?
Stress is the response to a change in our environment that requires the mind and body to react and adapt. These changes, or stressors, can provoke emotional, physical or mental responses, all of which impact our health.
“When we experience stress, our ‘fight-or-flight’ response releases hormones that are normally involved with escaping danger or fighting off an injury,” Dr. Gus Pendleton of Revere Health St. George Clinic said. “Unfortunately, we can’t use this response in every situation. You can’t fight traffic or run away from your work. Instead, stress internalizes and affects different parts of the body.”
How does stress affect me?
Feeling stressed can aggravate symptoms of asthma or diabetes, but it can also trigger other issues like headaches, depression or anxiety.
Chronic stress is a common factor a number of problems, including:
- Gastrointestinal conditions like heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome.
- Insomnia or fatigue.
- Muscle aches.
- Lowered libido.
- Changes in mood or appetite.
- Weight gain.
- High blood pressure.
- Chest pain.
“There isn’t any illness that’s not affected by stress,” Pendleton said. “It’s a component in almost any aspect of health care.”
Although stress may not cause these problems, it can contribute to them. Stress can even worsen the state of your diseases, Pendleton said, which can be a stressor in and of themselves.
How can you manage your stress?
The key to managing stress and improving your health is finding coping strategies that work for you. Each person is different and a coping tactic that works for one person may not work for another.
Start by identifying your stressors and eliminating or reducing the ones you have control over. Maybe one of your stressors is frequently running late for work. To avoid this stressor, you may try waking up five minutes earlier each day or preparing more the night before.
If you’re having a hard time coming up with a coping method that works for you, try some of these tips:
- Document what goes on each day, the good and the bad; this may give you a new perspective to find solutions for ongoing or repeated problems.
- Talk to a person you trust; this can include a friend, family member or counselor.
- Find a hobby you enjoy.
- Volunteer at a local charitable organization.
- Get up and move; whether you walk, ride a bike, swim or go to a yoga class, exercise can reduce stress.
- Learn new meditation or breathing exercises.
- Listen to soothing music.
- Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
- Get a planner, organize or make lists to keep yourself in control.
- Find a healthy coping strategy and avoid unhealthy ones like excessive drinking or smoking, overeating or procrastinating.
Remember that it’s OK to feel stressed from time to time, but if your stress becomes increasingly taxing on your physical, mental or emotional health, make an appointment with your primary care physician.
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