How to Fight Stress-Related Diseases
By Polly Turner |
No one can avoid all stress -- and a certain amount actually is good for you. But it's always best to keep unhealthy levels in check when possible.
Stress-related health problems can be the basis for many doctor visits.
"Research has shown over and over again that stress can exacerbate pre-existing physical conditions, and it can even bring on conditions that have not yet surfaced," says psychologist Michael Heitt, Psy.D., of the faculty and staff assistance program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "These can be anything from dermatological problems like acne or hives, to gastrointestinal problems and cardiac disease. When people say 'It's all in your head,' I say 'Yes, but your head's connected to the body.'"
For example, suppose Joe has inherited a predisposition to develop a depressive disorder sometime in his life; for him, a difficult breakup with his girlfriend may be all that's needed to trigger a bout of severe depression.
"Too much stress on the body or mind can make the immune system function poorly, leading to increased susceptibility to a wide variety of illnesses," says Dr. Heitt.
Then, there's the natural "fight or flight" response, in which the body instinctively reacts to stressful situations by priming the body for lifesaving physical action—which never occurs.
When you're faced with extreme stress, for instance, the stomach limits digestion to conserve energy, blood vessels constrict to direct blood flow to major muscle groups, hormone levels change, blood pressure rises, and so on.
"This response is helpful when you're threatened by a grizzly bear, but it can lead to physical ailments when unrelenting work stress eats at you day after day," says Dr. Heitt.
Keeping stress in check
No one can avoid all stress, and a certain amount actually is good for you. But it's always best to keep unhealthy levels in check when possible.
Dr. Heitt suggests following these steps to control stress:
Understand what stresses you. Both positive and negative situations can tip the scales in your life. On the negative side, financial difficulties, divorce, criticism by a friend or boss, unrealistic work demands or death of a friend or family member can cause stress. On the positive side, getting married, being promoted, having a baby, moving to a new home—even going on vacation—also can be stressful.
Notice when you're most vulnerable to stress and prepare yourself. Are you most affected in the mornings? On Mondays? In the winter?
Look at how you react to stress. Common effects include sleep problems, skin rashes, fatigue, irritability, agitation, headache, depression, excessive worrying, mood swings, chest pain, anxiety, upset stomach, ulcers and high blood pressure.
Recognize your stress signals. Once you're aware of your stressors, you'll have a better idea of what you can control and how to control it.
Take these actions
Get organized. Use a daily planner and prioritize tasks.
Learn to set limits. Don't agree to unnecessary, stressful obligations.
Be physically active and eat a healthy diet.
Get eight hours of sleep each night.
Don't take illegal drugs.
Limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine.
Stop smoking. Take regular relaxation breaks instead of smoking breaks. You can follow a similar routine—leave the office, get fresh air, socialize, and take slow, deep breaths.
Avoid angry, violent, depressing or upsetting movies, TV shows and newscasts until you are better able to handle them.
Try some relaxation techniques, such as self-hypnosis or guided imagery, prayer, meditation, yoga—whatever works for you.
"If none of these steps help you manage your stress," says Dr. Heitt, "then I recommend you see a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker."
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