A little stress response can be a lifesaver in emergency situations, but for many of us stress has become a chronic – and toxic – way of life.
In a healthy situation the body’s stress-response system is self-limiting, according to the Mayo Clinic. Once a perceived threat has passed, your adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities. But in an unhealthy situation when stressors are always present, your brain never sends your body an “all clear,” signal. As a result, the body’s “fight-or-flight” reaction stays turned on.
That can interfere with a broad array of biological functions putting you at increased risk of anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, hypertension, strokes, ulcers, sexual dysfunction, sleep problems, weight gain and memory or concentration impairment. Chronic stress can even suppress your immune response and interfere with your reproductive system.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 18 percent of U.S. adults suffer from anxiety/stress disorders yet only 37 percent of these individuals receive treatment, says Robert D. Wells, Ph.D., a psychologist with St. Elizabeth Physicians Outpatient Behavioral Health. “The increased demands on our lives presented by social media and technological changes have deprived individuals of adequate time to cope with life’s daily challenges.”
To complicate matters, many people fail to recognize chronic stress when it’s associated with the buildup of day-to-day pressures.
- See your doctor about existing or new health problems.
- Ask for help from friends, family, and others who can provide emotional support.
- Recognize signs of stress, such as difficulty sleeping, anger, depression, low energy, or increased use of alcohol.
- Prioritize your responsibilities and learn to say “no.”
- Focus on what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day, not what remains undone.
- Avoid dwelling on problems.
- Take care of your body. Eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep and exercise regularly.
- Schedule regular times for healthy and relaxing activities, such as reading or listening to music.
- Practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, massage and diaphragmatic breathing.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective ways of reducing stress, notes Wells. A typical CBT approach includes identifying sources of stress, restructuring priorities, and helping individuals manage and change their responses to stress.
“If your stress is interfering with your capacity to be happy and lead an emotionally rewarding life, then it may be time to seek professional help,” says Wells. “This is especially true if your stress level is chronic and persistent.”