Stress comes in all shapes and sizes but no matter how it is packaged, stress can test our limits psychologically, emotionally and physically.
“It is hard to believe but almost 90 percent of all visits to primary care providers are due to stress-related problems,” said Dr. Pam Duitsman, a nutrition and health education specialist with University of Missouri Extension.
IMPACT OF STRESS
Science has linked stress to all sorts of health issues, including all of the leading causes of death: cardiovascular disease, cancer, accidents and suicide. More subtle, but impactful, is how stress can decrease the immune system, cause weight and body-fat changes, prevent sleeping, trigger migraines and cause fatigue.
Stress is also linked to negative quality of life measures: stealing joy, peace, and sense of well-being; causing fear, mood swings and intense and overwhelming emotions. Research shows stress can profoundly affect our brain and decrease our ability to remember and learn.
Chronic stress, which results in a daily over-stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, is often a simple and natural reaction to daily challenges. This sort of low-level, constant stress can overload the brain with hormones that are meant for fight or flight. Long term, the effect is diminished brain capacity and susceptibility to mental illness.
“Stress is not only affecting us, it is affecting those around us,” Duitsman said. “Workplace and road-way violence, and other violent crimes are linked to increased stress.”
Some significant stressors rate high on the stress scale, such as death of a loved one, loss of job or a bad diagnosis. These situations are overwhelming, and may demand that a person seek the advice and counsel of a trained professional to help them cope.
“Most stressful situations that we face each day are not this severe,” Duitsman said. “It would be great if we could avoid every situation that creates stress – but, that’s probably not going to happen. Instead, what we can do is learn to control our response. Healthy responses to stress can be learned, and can help protect us from the most damaging impacts of stress.”
Several techniques have been shown to help people manage their response to stress.
The first is to determine what, specifically, is the cause of your stress, anxiety or fear.
“If you don’t know why you are stressed, begin by keeping a diary to record your physical symptoms or emotions, and the events, situations or people that trigger them,” Duitsman said.
Second, develop a support system that includes people you can trust. Studies show that those who manage stress well have strong support networks.
“Cultivate friendships with those who have similar values and goals,” Duitsman said. “Sign up for a class, or reach out to those you may work or worship with.”
It is also a good idea to check your medications. A side effect may be anxiety.
Duitsman said it is also important to learn what your limits are and set boundaries for involvement.
“When you are overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to say no,” Duitsman said. “Restructuring priorities can simplify your life. Evaluate what is most important, and focus on those things. As you are able, you can always add things back in to your schedule.”
Getting some type of physical activity daily is another way to manage stress. “Make the exercise something you love to do,” Duitsman said. “Exercise can mean walking the dogs, gardening, a brisk walk, golfing, shopping with a friend, or a host of more structured activities.”
According to Duitsman, breathing exercises, prayer and meditation, gratitude journals, and volunteering have also been shown to be beneficial in reducing stress.
“Realize that quick fixes, like eating, drug use or alcohol may make us feel better for a time, but rarely reduce any stress long term,” Duitsman said. “Dealing with stress can be learned though. Develop healthy habits by starting small and taking a week to try something new.”
For more information, call MU Extension nutrition specialist Cammie Younger in the Houston office at 417-967-4545. Information is also available online http://extension.missouri.edu.