Brent Salek, MD - Allina Health

Quit Stressin’ Me Out, Man

Stress has a daily impact on all of our lives. While this can be a positive force, motivating us to push forward to achieve our goals, it often serves as a negative force which can result in a multitude of health consequences. Whether it is a bad morning commute or a difficult family or financial situation we are facing, it is important for us to recognize the signs that stress may be affecting our health.

Physical manifestations of stress are our body’s natural reaction to dangerous situations. Anxiety, racing heart beats, and blood pressure elevations are just some of the symptoms that develop in the face of potentially dangerous situations and help us deal with the problem. These were developed in our ancestors to protect them from various threats. While the daily stresses we face are much different than those of our predecessors, if our modern stressors are not addressed then our “fight of flight” response can become stuck on full throttle, something which our bodies are not meant to handle.

In the acute setting, stress may result in short-lived symptoms, such as an anxiety attack, an upset stomach, palpitations, headaches, irritability, and difficulty focusing, among many other possible manifestations. While these are typically self-limiting, they do not make any of us feel good, and can have potential negative consequences on our relationships with family and friends, our job performance, and our usual activities of daily living.

In the chronic setting, stress may become quite dangerous, particularly in ways that several of us may not have thought about. Stress has been shown to be associated with higher rates of chronic mood disorders such as major depression and generalized anxiety disorder which generally require some type of treatment by a medical professional. It may cause elevations in blood pressure, which significantly increases our risk for serious cardiovascular events such as strokes and heart attacks. The “fight or flight” response can result in our bodies improperly regulating their blood sugar and cortisol levels which can increase the risk of developing diabetes and other endocrine disorders. Stress can even result in the development of stomach and intestinal ulcers which can cause pain and bleeding, among other things. Disorders of sleep are also common with chronic stress, and these cannot only cause blood pressure elevations and the associated consequences mentioned previously, but can perpetuate our stressful lifestyles by making us feel more fatigued and irritable. Some of us even try to self-medicate stress with substances like tobacco and alcohol, which can lead to individual and public safety consequences such as chemical dependency and drunk driving.

So as we can see, our daily stress can impact us today and down the road in a myriad of troubling ways, so it is important that we learn the means to cope with these stresses. Appropriate management of stress can improve our relationships, increase our job satisfaction, and just help us to enjoy life to its fullest. And while each of our stresses is different, so are those methods that we utilize to combat them. Some strategies to consider:

Identify your personal stressors. Develop a specific plan for addressing them in a meaningful way.

Prioritize your life. If you are feeling overwhelmed, identify items which are the most important and try to minimize non-vital tasks.

Rest that brain. Try to ensure an adequate 7- 8 hours of sleep along with avoidance of caffeine and other stimulants.

Build a strong support network. Handling stress in isolation can be far more difficult than if you are able to lean on others for support when needed.

Have some patience. Try to avoid an immediate physical or emotional reaction to stress and take time to assess the situation. This can help clear your mind.

Move, move, move. Regular exercise can decrease stress levels by physically letting off steam, and through the release of endorphins, our own natural antidepressants.

Seek help. Always remember that it is okay to feel overwhelmed at times. If you continue to struggle with unmanageable stress, please consult with a licensed mental health professional or your primary care provider.