Some level of stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing, says Dimitri Alvarez, MD, a family physician at Family Practice Associates of Rockland in Valley Cottage, NY. “Stress can motivate us and push us to perform to the best of our ability,” he said. But stress can be unhealthy when it becomes excessive and starts causing physical and emotional symptoms. “We all face stress—we need to learn to manage it so it doesn’t harm our health,” Dr. Alvarez said.
Chronic stress can lead to a variety of problems, including fatigue, memory problems, digestive symptoms, headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability. Stress also can affect the immune system, making people more vulnerable to viral infections such as the flu or common cold.
When a person is stressed, the body reacts by releasing adrenaline, a hormone that causes your heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. This is called the “fight or flight” response” because it prepares you to confront or run away from the stressful situation. When stress is chronic, the body remains in this “fight or flight” mode on and off for days or even weeks at a time.
People often react to chronic stress by making unhealthy lifestyle choices associated with high blood pressure and heart disease, such as overeating, smoking, and drinking too much alcohol.
Learn to Manage Stress
To reduce stress, Dr. Alvarez recommends these strategies:
- Get regular exercise. Any kind of exercise, such as 30 minutes a day of walking, can help reduce stress. “Yoga, Tai Chi, dancing can all help you stay physically and mentally fit, he says.
- If you smoke, quit. Almost one-third of deaths from coronary heart disease are due to smoking and secondhand smoke.
- Eat a healthy diet. The American Heart Association recommends a heart-healthy diet that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables; whole grains; low-fat dairy products; skinless poultry and fish; nuts and legumes; and non-tropical vegetable oils.
- Be aware and know your limits. Make every effort to remain totally present and focused on the moment, and on one task at a time. Demanding too much of yourself will generate unnecessary stress. At the end of the day note what you have been able to do, instead of what’s still ahead.
- Take a deep breath! There are many relaxation techniques that are easy to practice. Learning to control your breath is a good exercise that can lead with time to better self-control and a more productive life.
- Open up. “Some people tend to keep a lot inside them and don’t feel comfortable expressing their feelings,” Dr. Alvarez said. Studies on resilience showed that a good support system helps people remain healthy and cope better with major life events. Sharing your feeling and thoughts with friends and family may be therapeutic.
- If you feel that you can’t manage stress on your own, talk with your primary care physician. “When you can’t sleep because you’re so worried, if you’re experiencing other symptoms like constant headaches or heartburn, or if stress impacts your work and relationships, then it’s time to talk to your doctor,” Dr. Alvarez said.
Your doctor can help you identify the sources of stress in your life, and work with you to develop good coping skills. In some cases, the doctor may recommend that you see a therapist to help with stress and/or medication to help deal with anxiety.
“I’ve worked with patients who have had physical symptoms, such as heartburn, which disappeared as soon as we were able to identify and manage the stress in their lives,” Dr. Alvarez said.