Stressed About Stress?

As more and more research indicates that stress has wide-ranging effects on our health, an interesting thing is happening—we’re becoming stressed about stress. Stress has become commonplace; we all experience it to some degree, but the mere idea that stress may cause health problems is—well, frankly—stress-inducing.

Don’t stress. A little stress management goes a long way to promote health and wellbeing. All it takes is some awareness and a commitment to self-care.

What is Stress?

The stress response refers to automatic physical changes that occur in response to a real or perceived threat or change. These “threats” can include a wide range of events or situations, such as the death of a spouse, a tight deadline at work, or even positive events such as getting married. It is our perception of these events and not necessarily the events themselves that prompts the stress response. An event that causes stress to one individual may not cause stress to another.

In response to a stressful situation, chemical messages are relayed from the brain to the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys, produce the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), and norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline).1

These hormones have wide-ranging effects that help us respond to a challenging situation. They sharpen our senses, give us an energy boost, and prepare our muscles for action. In many circumstances these effects are positive and improve our performance. “Several studies have reported that the physiological stress response resulting from acute stress differs markedly from the one resulting from chronic stress,” says Dr. Naja Rod Nielsen, a researcher at Denmark’s National Institute of Public Health and the University of Southern Denmark. “The physiological effects of acute stressors are in most cases reversible due to the remarkable ability of the human organism to re-establish its balance. In an acute stress situation, the body is prepared to use all of its energy on survival and re-establishment of its balance, which is an appropriate response. The problems mainly arise if the stress response is prolonged and becomes chronic in nature, which may result in permanent disturbances in the balance of vital body systems. I therefore find it most relevant to study chronic exposure to stress in everyday life.”

If the stress response becomes extreme or prolonged, performance as well as health can suffer. Stress may influence risk of cardiovascular disease,2 susceptibility to infections,3 and other health problems.

Managing Stress

“Let me just emphasize,” states Dr. Nielsen, “that stress cannot be considered a healthy response. Stress is not a desirable state to be in, and it may lead to the development of diseases, particularly cardiovascular diseases.”

With that in mind, it’s important to find ways to cope with and alleviate stress. The National Women’s Health Information Center (www.4women.gov) provides the following tips for managing stress:4

  • Relax. It’s important to unwind. Each person has her own way to relax. Some ways include deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and massage therapy. If you can’t do these things, take a few minutes to sit, listen to soothing music, or read a book.
  • Make time for yourself. It’s important to care of yourself. Think of this as an order from your doctor so you don’t feel guilty! No matter how busy you are, you can set aside at least 15 minutes each day to do something for yourself, like taking a bubble bath, going for a walk, or calling a friend.
  • Sleep. Sleeping is a great way to help both your body and your mind. Your stress could get worse if you don’t get enough sleep. You also can’t fight off sickness as well when you sleep poorly. With enough sleep, you can tackle your problems better and lower your risk of illness. Try to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night.
  • Eat right. Forgo fast food and instead fuel up with fruits, vegetables, and proteins. Good sources of protein include peanut butter, chicken, and tuna salad. Eat whole grains, such as wheat breads and wheat crackers. Don’t be fooled by the jolt you get from caffeine or sugar. Your energy will wear off.
  • Get moving. Physical activity not only relieves tense muscles but also helps your mood too! Your body makes certain chemicals, called endorphins, before and after you work out. They relieve stress and improve your mood.
  • Talk to friends. Talking to your friends will help you work through your stress. Friends are good listeners. Finding someone who will let you talk freely about your problems and feelings without judging you does a world of good. It also helps to hear a different point of view. Friends will remind you that you’re not alone.
  • Get help from a professional if you need it. Talking to a therapist can help you work through stress and find better ways to deal with problems. For more-serious stress-related disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), therapy can be helpful. There also are medications that can ease symptoms of depression and anxiety and promote sleep.
  • Compromise. Sometimes it’s not worth the stress to argue. Give in once in a while.
  • Write down your thoughts. Have you ever typed an e-mail to a friend about your lousy day and felt better afterward? Why not grab a pen and paper and write down what’s going on in your life! Keeping a journal can be a great way to get things off your chest and work through issues. Later you can go back and read through your journal and see how you’ve made progress!
  • Help others. Helping someone else can help you. Help your neighbor or volunteer in your community.
  • Get a hobby. Find something you enjoy. Be sure to give yourself time to explore your interests.
  • Set limits. When it comes to things like work and family, figure out what you can really do. There are only so many hours in a day. Set limits with yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to say no to requests for your time and energy.
  • Plan your time. Think ahead about how you’re going to spend your time. Write a to-do list. Figure out what’s most important to do.
  • Don’t deal with stress in unhealthy ways. This includes drinking too much alcohol, using drugs, smoking, or overeating.

References:


1 NIH Backgrounder: Stress System Malfunction Could Lead to Serious, Life Threatening Disease. National Institutes of Health Web site. Available at: http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/sep2002/nichd-09.htm. Accessed September 24, 2007.

 

2 Ziegelstein RC. Acute emotional stress and cardiac arrhythmias. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2007;298(3):324-29.

3 Cohen S, Tyrrell DA, Smith AP. Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. New England Journal of Medicine. 1991;325(9):606-12.

4 Stress and Your Health. National Women’s Health Information Center Web site. Available at: http://www.4women.gov/faq/stress.htm. Accessed September 24, 2007.