April is National Stress Awareness month. Who needs a month to remind us of stress? I won’t go into my sources of stress, but I have them. And I’m sure you have yours. What is it about stress that prompts a thorough doctor to ask patients with all manner of symptoms, “How about stress in your life?” Whether it is pain in our head or our toes, our response to stress can make us literally sick. How does that happen?
Our bodies are very adaptive to a wide variety of environments and situations. When we feel threatened, our minds react but so does our body. Our endocrine system, the adrenal glands in particular, put our body into survival mode. For short periods of time, this allows us to fight stronger, run faster and focus better. This happens because hormones like cortisol and adrenaline give us greater strength and resistance to injury.
But when stress becomes chronic, the same events that help us survive can limit our ability to thrive. Everyone reacts differently and to different threats. In the end, all of us have some stressor that can cause anxiety or depression from chronic exposure to threat.
Some forms of relief decrease anxiety while making the body and mind stronger — exercise, meditation, prayer, talking with a supportive friend, or getting away are some examples. Some medications can be helpful in the short term to allow continued function, but caution is advised if the need becomes more chronic. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves changing the way we think about certain stimuli, seeking to change negatives into neutrals or even positives, can be a great help if anxiety or depression persists.
Other “remedies” are tempting because of their ready availability and short term relief from anxiety. Alcohol, other substances and behaviors (gambling, shopping, sex and others) can numb unpleasant feelings, but the aftermath can be increasing anxiety. With long term use, the withdrawal from pharmacologic effects can induce a whole new set of symptoms: physical withdrawal associated with addiction.
Eliminating stress from our lives is not realistic. We can make different choices about priorities (“Don’t sweat the small stuff”) and develop coping skills. Professionals can help in a variety of ways.
Why bother? Stress kills and deprives our lives of quality. It can make us more prone to infection and cancer because it depresses our immune system. It can lead to depression, including even suicide. But did you know that it also inflames our vascular system, increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke and other vascular events? Emotions cause overeating and stress levels of cortisol cause weight gain, which can in turn bring on diabetes and vascular disease.
Research the best options to manage your response to stress. Talk to your health care professional for advice for best options. Awareness that we are being hurt is the first step.
Why have a Stress Awareness Month? So that we can all be more aware; then act.