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April is Stress Awareness Month

April is Stress Awareness Month

Stress Less: Recognize the Symptoms and Find Your “Chill”

Sponsored by The Health Resource Network (HRN), a non-profit health education organization, Stress Awareness Month is a national, cooperative effort to inform people about the dangers of stress, successful coping strategies, and harmful misconceptions about stress prevalent in our society.

For most Americans, stress has simply become part of life. Whether it’s struggling to finish your taxes, dealing with a high-stress job, or juggling multiple tasks every day—stress is all around us.

How does stress affect our daily lives? It’s often felt in a tightening of the muscles, increased blood pressure, headaches, and other physical signs. In fact, many studies show that severe stress has a direct correlation with heart disease, depression, and a weakened immune system which, in turn, makes the body vulnerable to many other health issues.

Stress is a Natural Reaction

Have you ever found yourself with sweaty hands during a job interview or felt your heart pound during a scary movie? Then you know you feel stress in both your mind and body. This automatic response developed in our ancient ancestors to protect them from predators and other threats. Faced with danger, the body kicks into gear, flooding itself with hormones that elevate heart rate, increase blood pressure, and boost energy.

These days, you’re not likely to face the threat of being eaten, but you probably do confront multiple challenges every day—like meeting deadlines, paying bills, and juggling childcare—that make your body react the same way. As a result, your body’s natural alarm system, the “fight or flight” response, may be stuck in the “on” position which can have serious consequences for your health.

But even short-lived, minor stress can have an impact. You might get a stomach-ache before you give a presentation, for example. More major acute stress, whether caused by a fight with your spouse or an event like an earthquake or terrorist attack, can have an even bigger impact.

Multiple studies have shown these sudden emotional stresses, especially anger, can trigger heart attacks, arrhythmias, and even sudden death. Although this happens mostly in those who already suffer from heart disease, some don’t know they have a problem until acute stress causes a heart attack…or something worse.

Chronic, Long-term Stress is Dangerous

When stress begins interfering with your ability to live a normal life for an extended period, it becomes even more dangerous. The longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body. You might feel fatigued, unable to concentrate, or irritable for no good reason, for example. But chronic stress causes wear and tear on your body as well.

Different people feel stress in different ways. Some experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability. Those under chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold.

Routine stress may be the hardest type of stress to notice. Because the source of stress tends to be more constant than in cases of acute or traumatic stress, the body gets no clear signal to return to normal functioning. Over time, continued strain on your body from routine stress may contribute to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, as well as mental disorders like depression or anxiety.

Worst of all, stress can make existing problems worse according to the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. In one study conducted, for example, approximately half the participants saw improvements in chronic headaches after learning how to stop the stress-producing habit of “catastrophizing,” or constantly thinking negative thoughts about their pain.

Chronic stress may also cause disease, either because of changes in your body or the overeating, smoking, and other bad habits people use to cope with stress. Job strain is associated with increased risk of coronary disease, for example. Other forms of chronic stress, such as depression and low levels of social support, have also been implicated in increased cardiovascular risk.

And more bad news: Once you’re sick, stress can also make it harder to recover. One analysis of past studies, for instance, suggests that cardiac patients with so-called “Type D” personalities—characterized by chronic distress—face higher risks of bad outcomes.

Recognize the Common Effects of Stress

So now we know that stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior. Being able to recognize stress symptoms can give you a jump on managing them. Remember, stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to many health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Common effects of stress on your body include:

  • Headache;
  • Muscle tension or pain;
  • Chest pain;
  • Fatigue;
  • Change in sex drive;
  • Stomach upset; and
  • Sleep problems.

Common effects of stress on your mood include:

  • Anxiety;
  • Restlessness;
  • Lack of motivation or focus;
  • Feeling overwhelmed;
  • Irritability or anger; and
  • Sadness or depression.

Common effects of stress on your behavior include:

  • Overeating or undereating;
  • Angry outbursts;
  • Drug or alcohol abuse;
  • Tobacco use;
  • Social withdrawal; and
  • Exercising less often.

Learn to Manage Your Stress

The effects of stress build up over time. Taking practical steps to manage your stress can reduce or prevent these effects and greatly improve your quality of life. The following suggestions may help you to cope with stress and find your “chill.”

  • Recognize the signs of your body’s response to stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed, and having low energy.
  • Talk to your doctor or health care provider so you can get the proper care for existing or new health problems.
  • Get regular exercise. Just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and reduce stress.
  • Try a relaxing activity. Explore stress coping programs, which may incorporate meditation, yoga, tai chi, or other exercises. For some stress-related conditions, these approaches are used in addition to other forms of treatment.
  • Set goals and priorities. Decide what must get done and what can wait…and learn to say “no” to new tasks if they’re putting you into overload. Note what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day, not what you’ve been unable to do.
  • Stay connected with those who can provide emotional and other support. To reduce stress, ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations.

Know When to Seek Help

If you’re not sure if stress is the cause of your health issues or if you’ve taken steps to control your stress, but symptoms continue, see your doctor. He or she may want to check for other potential causes. Or, consider seeing a professional counselor or therapist, who can help you identify sources of your stress and learn new coping tools.

If you have chest pain, especially if it occurs during physical activity or is accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating, dizziness, nausea, or pain in your shoulder and arm, get emergency help immediately—these may be warning signs of a heart attack and not simply stress symptoms.

If you have questions about stress or any healthcare issue, contact the primary care providers at Coastal Carolina Health Care by calling (252) 633-4111 or visiting www.cchchealthcare.com.

(Sources: American Psychological Association; National Institute of Mental Health; American Heart Association; The Mayo Clinic; Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research; Michigan State University; and Channing Bete Company.)