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Although not all stress is bad, and at low levels, it can serve as a motivating force, stress is an enormous problem in the lives of Americans.
Everyday annoyances—traffic, deadlines, even what to have for dinner—can do more than leave you feeling burned out. Stress can cause you to be less productive at your job and the constant strain of stress can wear the body down, so much that you may have to miss work. Stress also can contribute to minor ailments like headaches and back pain and even to life-threatening conditions like heart disease.
It all goes back to our built-in “fight or flight” instinct, which came in handy when our ancestors were confronted with extremely stressful situations—such as being chased by a saber-toothed tiger. “The stress response primes the body for immediate action,” says Joan Donley, M.D., internal medicine physician on the Baylor Scott & White - Plano medical staff.
Stress affects people differently. “Events that may be stressful for some people may not create the same negative tension in you, so it’s important for you to know your stress trigger points,” says Dr. Donley.
“Knowing your stress capacity will help you learn to react appropriately and make changes to your life when necessary.” Those who have a high-stress threshold tend to have personality traits that reinforce their ability to deal well with stress. They tend to believe in their job or the task at hand, believe they have some influence in their situation, and recognize change as a positive opportunity instead of a threat.
Studies suggest that women and men react to stress differently too. According to a Harvard Medical School study, women worry about more on a daily basis than men, who only average worrying about three things, including their immediate family, job and money. The average women worries about twelve things, including the same areas men worry about, but they also tend to worry about their extended family, the home, the social and academic abilities of their kids, social ties to neighbors, friends and more.
The workplace is often a major source of stress. Long-term, intense stress levels on the job can lead to a loss of interest in one’s job and eventually lead to burnout. “One way to help prevent burnout is to strive to achieve balance and growth by not becoming too invested in one area of your life,” says Dr. Donley.
“Our heart rate, breathing and blood pressure rise, we sweat, and the stress hormone cortisol releases more glucose into the bloodstream as fuel for our muscles,” says Dr. Donley. Then once the “tiger” moves off, the stress is defused and everything returns to normal.
But what if you’re not running from a tiger, just running to catch the bus every day? Being under constant low-level stress is like sleeping with one eye open, says Dr. Donley.
Unchecked, low-level stress can lead to physical symptoms such as:
Stress can also lead to psychological symptoms, including:
Stress-related disease is due to excessive and extended demands on a person’s coping mechanisms. Individuals who face ongoing stress symptoms should consider seeing a physician to help avoid stress-related physical illness. “It’s important to recognize when you’re under stress so you can take steps to relieve it,” says Dr. Donley. “When you reach your breaking point, it’s because so much daily stress has been allowed to build up.”
There are several healthy ways to deal with stress and help prevent illness down the road. Take your pick: progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, prayer, visualization, meditation, relaxing music—and make it part of your life.
“I recommend yoga and Pilates to many of my patients,” adds Dr. Donley. Along with similar movement exercises like tai chi, they ease stress by developing body awareness and focusing on balance and breathing. “Any exercise is great,” she says, “because it releases those ‘feel-good’ endorphins that have a beneficial effect on both body and mind.”
Dr. Donley recommends that anyone suffering with chronic stress visit their physician. Possible treatment options include biofeedback, psychotherapy and medication if appropriate.
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