Stress: How It Affects Your Health, and What You Can Do To Manage It
By Kelli Curtis
You’ve felt it before. The seemingly never-ending buzz of activity in your brain, with countless thoughts darting to the forefront of your mind. They bombard you with obligations, deadlines, relationships, and the realization you need to scrub the shower.
You rub your head, ignore the dishes piling up in the sink, and wonder if you will have time to sleep.
Psychological and physical stress affect the body in the same way — it doesn’t distinguish the difference. The body reacts to those perceived threats with the “Fight or Flight” response, even if it’s addressing the mental stressor of arguing with a friend: Your heart pounds, your breath quickens, and your strength increases.
And while some stress can have positive effects (including improved focus and concentration), too much stress becomes detrimental to mental, emotional, and physical health. Finding that balance, and learning to manage your stress, is key.
The Causes of Stress
The potential reasons for stress to be present are endless: friends, family, significant others, school, jobs, chores, finances, health, etc. And these days, “everyone is stressed out,” says Cheri Augustine Flake, a psychotherapist and coach that specializes in stress reduction. “Our inability here in the United States to live in the moment and accept ourselves for who we are and what we can do is putting us all at risk for stress and stress-related health concerns.”
The root of stress comes down to being judgmental, says Meredith McEver, a licensed clinical social worker who leads mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive therapy groups.
“The most important stressor is being judgmental about yourself,” McEver says. “For example, of course your job is stressful, but thinking you can’t do it or you’re incompetent is where the stress comes in.” She attributes that to a fairly common attempt to change things people have no control over, and then internalizing those problems.
“People need to consider professional assistance when their stressors or their reactions to the stressors become overwhelming, or when the stress or the reaction to the stress is actually interfering in their lives,” says Beth Altman, a licensed clinical social worker.
However, it seems that people frequently look down upon seeking professional help — especially men. “Women tend to be more socialized to be more aware and to be more expressive,” Altman says. “Men are more likely to be less in touch — generalized — and frequently keep it more to themselves. And men, more than women, are likely to manifest their stress more behaviorally; they may drink more, bury themselves in their work more.” Thus, the stressors build as people deny the present cause and push away the feelings until it’s overwhelming.
“Address the problems earlier when it’s easier to treat,” McEver says. “If you’re someone who gets stressed out easily, you can learn to not get stressed out. It’s a skill you can learn, and what a difference in your life it would make to learn that skill.”
The Physical and Emotional Effects of Stress
If chronic stress goes unchecked, the problem manifests physically in increasing severity. “In the long-term, there isn’t any part of your body that isn’t impacted by stress,” McEver says. “Especially when you’re young, you don’t see that huge of an impact from stress. But you’re sowing the seeds down the road for illness.”
What may begin as chronic headaches can ultimately contribute to any of the following:
• Hair loss
• Heart disease
• Obsessive-compulsive or anxiety disorder
• Sexual dysfunction
“I am a firm believer that stress causes disease,” Flake says. “Look at the word: ‘dis-ease.’ A lack of calm and clarity causes illness. [And] when your thoughts are colored with the ill effects of stress, everything looks and feels worse.”
One thing to be frequently compromised by the effects of stress is relationships, McEver says. The anxiety, depression, mood swings, and irritability that may be felt because of stress ultimately create difficulty in connecting with others, which creates interpersonal conflicts. “You may feel unable to have meaning in your life,” she says.
Much of that tension is unknowingly carried in a person’s shoulders, McEver says, and one way to combat stress is to be aware of your body.
“Most people walk around all day with their shoulders tense and tight, and what that does is that it keeps building,” she says. “You can only change it when you acknowledge it; otherwise you don’t even know what’s going on.”
Flake emphasizes the need of practicing daily stress management before ever reaching a “breaking point.” “Sometimes, every day is just a battle to get ahead,” she says. “When this happens, hopes, dreams, good ideas, and things you wish you were doing or feel that you should be doing get lost along the way.”
Ways to Manage Stress At Home
Meditate for 10 to 15 minutes each day. This is a free, easy way to approach stress management. Flake suggests you find a quiet spot, sit comfortably, close your eyes and focus on a mantra or your breath. When thoughts try to disrupt your focus, revert back to your mantra or breath.
Think about how you “catastrophize certain situations,” Flake says. “Consider a Catastrophe Scale ranging from 1 (not a stressful situation at all) to 10 (the most stressful situation of all). See how you may be rating all of your situations, even a flat tire, as a 7, 8, 9 or even 10 … Now consider something that is truly a 10 — say, a hurricane that wipes out your house, everything you own and everyone you love, as well. The flat tire looks more like a 1 or 2 now, doesn’t it?”
Learn to categorize your “ought tos,” “need tos” and “really want tos,” and find the right balance for your lifestyle.
Practice mindfulness based stress reduction, in which the emphasis is on being “present.” “When there’s a stress that comes up, go towards the stress instead of running away from the problem,” McEver says. “Experience what’s going on in the moment — be really grounded.
Notice your body sensations, tensions, relaxations, present emotions, present thoughts. Notice what’s going on with you and don’t be judgmental about it, don’t try to deny what’s present or push away bad feelings.” Pay attention to your shoulders on a regular basis, she says. When you notice your shoulders are tight or tense, that means you aren’t relaxed.
Take a few moments each day to do something you enjoy, be it music, art or writing. If you need to, begin scheduling your day to allow for a specific time for your hobby and personal enjoyment.
Altman recommends taking care of yourself in every sense: Exercise, eat well, get adequate sleep, and develop a reliable support system.
Utilize any method of stress management before the problem escalates. You can manage it more easily the earlier you confront the situation. And if you feel unable to handle your stress on your own, feel no shame. A professional can work with you pursue the best course of treatment for you and your lifestyle. “Therapy would help [people] understand better why they’re feeling the way they are, and what changes they could make to better adapt,” Altman says.
The Different Types of Stress
Eustress: Short-term stress that occurs during moments of physical activity, enthusiasm, and creativity. It’s positive, fun, and exciting. (ex: racing to meet a deadline, the feelings before competing in a sports event)
Distress: Negative stress that produces discomfort, especially when a routine is interrupted.
Acute Stress: A type of distress that is intense but short-lived.
Chronic Stress: Long-term stress that can exist anywhere from a few weeks to years.
Hyperstress: Stress that occurs when a person is overwhelmed, which can lead to strong emotional responses from small triggers.
Hypostress: Stress that occurs when a person is bored, restless, and uninspired.
Information from The Health Center
By the Numbers breakout box
Two-thirds of all office visits to family physicians are due to stress-related symptoms.
23% of women executives and professionals, and 19% of their male peers, say they feel super-stressed.
64% of Americans say they are taking steps to reduce stress in their lives.
Information from Foundation for Integrated Research in Mental Health (2007) and American Psychological Association (2005)