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Everyone feels stressed at times, and your body is wired to handle that in small doses. In fact, a little stress can be a good thing. Ever notice that the more time you’re given to do something, the longer it seems to take? Stress can help you work faster toward deadlines and boost your productivity and overall job performance. It can also save your life — think of the times you’ve slammed on your brakes to avoid an accident. Physical stress is also good for the body. Just think of exercise and the benefits it provides for strong bones and muscles. Learning is another form of stress for the brain. Remember learning to ride a bike, typing or playing a musical instrument? Certain kinds of stress help us stay healthy.

But stress is only good to a point. Long periods of chronic, unremitting stress can interfere with the way your body works, resulting in a weaker immune system, increased anxiety and depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and many other problems.

Research shows that while men are more likely to be diagnosed with chronic illnesses linked to high stress and unhealthy lifestyles, they put less emphasis on managing their stress than women do. They also tend not to show when they’re feeling too much stress, but their body will eventually show signs (higher stress hormones, increased abdominal obesity, cardiovascular disease, poor sleep, mood disorders, etc). It’s important to understand your personal stress triggers and how to deal with them in healthy ways. Too often when we feel stressed, we over-eat, smoke, and use too much alcohol and other drugs, which further worsens the health risks associated with chronic stress.

What is Stress?

At its simplest, the definition of stress is how your brain and body respond to a perceived demand or threat. It’s tough to define more specifically because everyone is so different. What causes stress for your friend may not concern you at all, or maybe you’re just better at bouncing back from stressful situations. But one thing is certain: there’s no way to completely avoid stress, and eliminating stress is not necessarily the goal.

The stress response is a normal physical and psychological process. Back in the hunter-gatherer, cave-dwelling days of humanity, stress triggered a critical survival “fight, flight, freeze and anger” response to help our ancient ancestors escape hungry predators and other dangers. Although the stress of today’s modern world in places like the United States is generally different and less threatening (such as job, family, children, bills, etc), the body’s response to stress is still the same unfortunately.

Here’s what happens when your body produces stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol:

  • Your heart rate increases and you breathe faster
  • Your brain thinks less, and reacts faster
  • Your muscles engorge with blood to prepare for action

Unfortunately, in today’s world stress can hover over you like a heavy blanket, and we perceive no end to it. Instead of returning to a natural resting state (having regular periods of mental and physical relaxation), the body too often stays in a state of distress, which makes the heart work too hard, blood vessels constrict for longer than they should, and blood sugar and weight increase. Over time, what is meant to be a life-saving instinct can instead take a toll on your physical and mental health.

Types of Stress

There are different types of stress — from one-time or short-term occurrences to something that keeps happening over time. All can pose varying risks to your health and well-being depending on the stressor itself and how we address it.

Acute stress: Demands and pressures of the recent past or near future

This is the most common type of stress, covering many of the things we encounter in our daily lives — from dealing with a child’s problem at school to losing an important contract at work or suffering a fender bender on your commute. Interestingly, acute stress can even stem from a positive experience, such as riding a rollercoaster or a surprise birthday party. Acute stress has the least impact on your health, except for when it involves violence, is caused by a crime, or other severe trauma that can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Episodic stress: Stress that is too frequent

You’ve probably heard the terms “worry wart” or “Type A personality.” People who fit these descriptions can experience episodic recurring stress because they feel ongoing pressure that comes with excessive worry, over-anticipating negative outcomes, or trying to live up to unrealistic expectations (e.g. perfectionists).

Chronic stress: Long-term, continuous exposure to stress

This is characterized by deeply wearing situations that seem to be unending, with no escape or solution in sight. Things like chronic illness, unhappy relationships, poverty, or ongoing traumatic experiences can create a sense of hopelessness that is characteristic of chronic stress. To add to the problem, chronic stress can be hard to notice because the state of feeling stressed becomes so familiar.

Symptoms of Stress

No part of your body is off limits to the effects of stress. It can impact not just your physical health, but also your mood, thoughts and behavior — ultimately also affecting your daily life and relationships. Many times symptoms of stress are non-specific and vague (e.g. my stomach is upset), or can mimic other medical conditions (e.g. chest pain, shortness of breath), so check with your doctor to rule-out and treat other underlying serious medical issues.

Physical signs of stress

While everyone experiences and responds to stress in different ways, there are many common general symptoms that can indicate stress. Awareness is the first valuable step toward getting a handle on stress. Some of these include the following:

  • Headache
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Pounding or fast heart-rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • Clenched jaws and grinding teeth
  • Low energy and fatigue
  • Change in sex drive
  • Stomach problems
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Frequent colds and infections

Cognitive signs of stress

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Poor focus and attention
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability, anger or frustration
  • Low self-esteem
  • Sadness or depression

Behavioral signs of stress

  • Changes in appetite
  • Increased use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs
  • Angry outbursts
  • Racing thoughts
  • Excessive worry
  • Procrastinating or avoiding responsibilities
  • Forgetfulness
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Exercising less

It’s important to recognize that stress left unchecked can cause or exacerbate more serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, stomach ulcers, diabetes, and mental disorders like depression or anxiety.

Be sure to seek emergency help if you have suicidal thoughts or if you experience chest pain — especially if it’s during exercise or accompanied by shortness of breath, dizziness, sweating or pain in your shoulder or arm. These may be signs of a heart attack that shouldn’t be mistaken for stress alone without being evaluated further.

How to Deal with Stress

Stressful situations have a way of making you feel like you have little to no control, but that couldn’t be further than the truth. There are things you can do to make stress more manageable — though that doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy, fast fix! Often, it’s a matter of working on changing your own perceptions when the situation can’t be changed.

Since the effects of stress build up over time, taking practical measures now is important to curb the progress of illnesses caused by stress. Here are some tips to get started:

  • Recognize your symptoms. The first step is acknowledging that stress is getting to you and knowing it’s OK to admit it. Tune in to signs such as having trouble sleeping, getting angry easily or drinking frequently.
  • Exercise regularly. Although watching TV or playing video games may seem like a good way to manage stress, physical activity is one of the best therapies to manage stress. Any amount will help, but just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and reduce stress.
  • Find an escape. There are many proven stress-coping methods, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises or yoga. But if you’re not into that, seek out something else that works for you (e.g. fishing, hiking, gardening, reading a book, etc). Sometimes it’s as simple as finding a diversion, such as golfing with friends or enjoying a hobby.
  • Hang out with family and friends. Even if you don’t talk about what’s stressing you out, just staying connected and spending time with people you enjoy being around can help. Enjoying a shared sense of humor while you’re together is also a great stress-reliever.
  • Set goals and priorities. It’s easy to get so caught up in meeting busy daily demands that you don’t stop to think about your own well-being and personal goals. What can get done and what can wait? Is there anything you can say “no” to when you already have a lot on your plate? Avoid taking on too many responsibilities.

Stress Less with Help from Sauk Prairie Healthcare

Men and women handle stress differently. As a guy, you might not love the idea of talking about your feelings, and maybe you think you’re handling it just fine. But if you’re experiencing symptoms of stress, don’t just tough it out. It’s important to let your primary care doctor know what’s going on, especially if you’re not sure your symptoms are stress-related or your attempts to lower your stress haven’t given you relief. We understand where you’re coming from and will help you find the coping tools that work for you. Give us a call to set up an appointment.