Nearly everyone experiences stress—it’s our body’s natural reaction to sudden changes and threatening situations. Your heart rate increases, your muscles tense and your blood pressure spikes as your body prepares to fight or flee. And while these biochemical changes can fuel you through a short-term situation (say, a big work presentation), if left unchecked, they could have devastating long-term effects.
“Everyone handles stress differently. One person might have no trouble managing multiple projects and responsibilities while another person in the very same set of circumstances could feel very anxious,” says Shazia Qamar, M.D., a family medicine doctor at Henry Ford Health.
But no matter how you react to challenging situations, it’s important to understand how stress impacts your body’s systems. Here, Dr. Qamar shares what physicians want patients to understand about stress—and how to more effectively manage it:
- There are 2 types of stress. Acute (or short-term) stress causes your body to gear up to face possible danger. So, if you’re running a race or preparing for a test, this type of stress is normal and can even be useful because it fires you up to meet the challenge. Chronic (or long-term) stress, on the other hand, results from an ongoing issue—family conflicts, financial pressures, a terminal illness. It can put a strain on the body and make you moody, tense and depressed.
- Stress increases your risk for nearly every disease state. While stress is part of everyone’s life, if it’s not managed and addressed, it can lead to serious, even life-threatening diseases. Studies show a link between stress and heart disease, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. Stress can also make existing health problems worse and leads to weight gain, depression and tummy troubles.
- Stress requires you make your health a priority. When you’re stressed, the basic principles of a balanced life tend to fall off the priority list. You might skip meals, sleep less and nix your thrice-weekly workout to free up time to meet your mounting demands. A better approach: Make a commitment to stay on top of your health in the midst of chaos. If you’re well-rested, well-nourished and emotionally and physically fulfilled, you’ll be better equipped to tick items off your to-do list.
- Stress deserves a voice. People generally don’t want to talk about stress and anxiety. They may feel ashamed of their life circumstances or they’re leery of sharing relationship or financial concerns with others. But rather than numbing painful feelings with food, wine or other potentially harmful ways of coping, give them a voice. Sharing your concerns with friends, loved ones, even an online support community, can help you gain insight about how to better handle your stressors. Still can’t stomach talk therapy? Try writing a simple journal entry. Sometimes writing out what’s bothering you offers some much needed perspective. And you’ll get bonus points if you tack on a gratitude list after your gripes.
- Relaxation strategies can dramatically reduce stress levels. Tip the balance from stress-inducing to stress-reducing: Practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing and restorative forms of exercise like yoga and tai chi. Still can’t quiet your mind? Distract yourself from your stressors by participating in activities you enjoy. Listen to music, go to the movies or take a weekend vacation. Better yet, go for a hike, shoot hoops with your kids or participate in other healthy activities that will flood your system with feel-good hormones.
- Managing stress may require medical assistance. If you feel overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor to screen you for anxiety and depression. Once you have a diagnosis, you’ll be better equipped to deal with your personal demons. Your doctor may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (form of talk therapy that helps you challenge and reframe negative thoughts and behaviors), relaxation strategies or prescribe medication to help you with your anxiety.
Unfortunately, stress is unavoidable, especially with the competing demands of work, home and family. If you have been suffering with seemingly insurmountable symptoms of stress and anxiety for more than two months, visit your doctor for an evaluation.
Dr. Shazia Qamar is a family medicine physician see patients of all ages at Henry Ford Medical Center – Chicago Road in Warren.