We all hear a lot about stress these days. And we all probably feel “stressed out” now and then, too. But when does stress become a more serious health problem? The National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as the body’s response to any demand and it’s usually described as a feeling of being overwhelmed, anxious, or run-down.
Many things can trigger stress, including those that are negative or positive, real or imagined. And not all stress is harmful: stress helps our bodies react and get moving so we can avoid danger—like an oncoming bus. We call this the body’s “fight or flight response.” It’s when stress levels stay high, either because of everyday pressures that go unmanaged or repeated exposure to a stressful event or events, that health problems can develop. This kind of stress, known as chronic stress, is more constant and lasts for an extended amount of time. Living with chronic stress can increase your risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and digestive issues. It is also associated with a weakened immune system, can lead to depression, and cause fertility and memory problems.
So how do you know if you may be experiencing chronic stress? There are some physical symptoms, like headaches, loose stools, and problems sleeping. Other signs include feeling so overwhelmed that you can’t get anything done, or feeling like stress is interfering with your daily activities. Be sure to discuss these and any other new symptoms with your doctor as they could be signs of a different medical condition. And it’s important not to self-medicate with substances like nicotine or excess alcohol or to engage in other harmful behaviors. Some people turn to smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, overeating or other unhealthy behaviors for momentary stress relief, but the short and long-term effects of these behaviors may actually further jeopardize both your physical and emotional well-being.
What’s important to know is there are things you can do to begin combating stress. Three steps to consider:
Start setting boundaries. One of the things I teach my patients is how to set boundaries and learn to say no. You can’t do everything or take it all on, so it’s important to speak up when there’s too much on your plate.
Set aside time for yourself. Find an activity you enjoy and that you know helps you relax. You may want to try exercise or meditation, for example. Spending time away from what’s causing your stress can help you regroup and recharge.
Find support and get help. Try talking to a loved one about how you feel. You may also want to seek professional help, especially if the support of your friends and family isn’t enough. A therapist can help you recognize the source (or sources) of your stress, and then offer suggestions for reducing stress.
If you can take these small steps, you’ll be putting yourself in a direction to begin to minimize stress, with the hope of avoiding or managing chronic stress.
John A. Gillespie, M.D., Pfizer Medical Director, is a practicing psychiatrist in New York, NY