Patients often ask me, “can _____ be caused by stress?” My answer is always yes. Stress may not be the only problem, but poorly manage stress is certainly a contributing factor to all ailments.
The Cleveland Clinic defines stress as a “normal reaction the body has when changes occur, resulting in physical, emotional, and intellectual responses.” Everyone experiences stress throughout their lives, that’s just a part of living. So when does stress become a problem?
The body and mind can do a great job of managing acute (temporary) stress. The fight-or-flight response helps us overcome whatever challenges we face. These physiologic and psychological changes can include, increased heart and respiratory rate, strength, endurance, improve senses, enhanced concentration and problem-solving, and emotional resiliency.
However, when the stress response is prolonged, it can take a major toll on a person’s mental and physical well-being.
The mechanisms that are useful in acute stress management will become detrimental if allowed to persist. Excessive and prolonged stress hormone release, such as cortisol and adrenaline, can result in increased risk of chronic diseases, chronic pain, poor immune function, sleep disturbances, sex hormone imbalances, GI symptoms, and mental health disorders.
Chronic stress can result in drug and alcohol addiction, in an attempt to cope. Poorly controlled stress can destroy relationships that would have otherwise done well. Lastly, chronic stress can make it more difficult to manage existing chronic diseases, like mental health conditions, diabetes, high blood pressure, migraines, and sexual dysfunction.
How can I better control stress (in addition to prayer and meditation)?
-Perception everything. There is almost nothing more stressful than worrying about something you have absolutely no control over. Sometimes you just have to change your outlook on certain things. If you truly have no control over it, just make peace with it. The more time you spend stressing over uncontrollable factors, the less energy you have for things you actually can control.
-If you are stressing over something you can change, create a plan to help facilitate that change. The act of planning how you are going to improve on something can help to alleviate the stress it is causing. This can be a relaxing activity.
-Read all of the previous blogs. Eating real food, improving sleep, getting outdoors, and staying active are all important for stress management.
-Try journaling. This can be especially helpful if the stress is coming from a specific person and you do not feel like you’re able to discuss it with them. Try writing about how you feel and what you would like to say to them.
-Take time for yourself to enjoy relaxing activities. This can be reading, playing games, watching your favorite show, or going out with friends. What would be even more helpful is doing something that will make you laugh.
-Don’t accept more stressors. Declining new responsibilities will help to reduce the overall burden of stress you have to manage.
Bonus recommendations: What NOT to do for stress!
-Drink alcohol, or turn to some other substance, for relaxation. It may seem helpful in the short term and feel relaxing, but it is terrible for your health and just adds more stress to the body. Having to deal with an addiction on top of your other stressors is only adding fuel to the fire.
-Stress eat. This is generally done with junk foods. No one stress eats a steak or chicken. Once again, you may feel like you’re relieving stress, but it’s only building poor habits and giving your body more stress with the inflammatory, unhealthy ingredients.
-Bury or ignore your feelings. The stressor will continue to negatively affect you until you properly address it, even if it is just acknowledging the issue.
-Think you’re alone. Most of the time, family and friends would gladly make themselves available to help. If not, there’s a support group for everything, just look for one.
OK, that’s it for this week. Let’s get the chronic stress under better control, and you’ll find that all of your other wellness efforts will be more effective.