Key Takeaways

  • Stress can have emotional, physical, and long-term health problems.
  • Managing stress is essential for our well-being.
  • Take stock of the stressors in your life and follow these six tips.

A woman in stress with her hand on her headWhat does the word “stress” mean to you? Is it an impossible work deadline? An infant that fusses all night when all you want to do is sleep? Or coping with a difficult boss, an uncooperative spouse or a chronic health problem? There are so many different ways to experience stress that it’s hard to pinpoint an exact cause.

An official definition from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is, “Stress can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous.” In other words, the potential for stress is everywhere.

“I don’t think I’ve met a single person, a patient or another colleague, who doesn’t have stress in their lives,” observes Ami B. Bhatt, MD, medical director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Adult Congenital Heart Disease Program, “In general, we would love to have no stress at all in our lives, but that’s challenging for most people.”

Time to Take Stock

It's important to take stock of the stressors in your life: Learning how to manage stress is essential for mental and physical well-being. As Dr. Bhatt notes, uncontrolled, stress can have emotional effects, physical symptoms, and can sometimes lead to long term health problems.

The stress response—fight or flight—is a survival mechanism designed to give us a surge of energy to overcome a threat. During the stress response, your body pumps out more adrenaline to rev it up for action. Your blood pressure spikes, your heart beats faster, and blood is sent to your legs so that you can run. Under ideal conditions, after a burst of physical activity, your body returns to normal. In modern times, however, we tend to sit and simmer and not exert ourselves in a way that would quickly restore normal balance to our bodies. Blood pressure stays elevated, which can damage arteries. An increased heart rate and blood pressure can overwork the heart. And some studies show that chronic stress promotes inflammation throughout the body. The occasional stressor is not a problem, but over time, continuous, poorly managed stress can make us sick, Dr. Bhatt explains. For some people, stress can result in irritable bowel syndrome or asthma; in others it might cause high blood pressure or disordered sleep, both of which can increase the risk of a cardiovascular event.

In general, we would love to have no stress at all in our lives, but that’s challenging for most people.

Ami B. Bhatt, MD
Medical Director, Adult Congenital Heart Disease Program at Mass General

How can you tell when stress is getting the better of you? One telltale sign is irritability. Other indications of stress overload include headaches, fatigue, and occasionally chest heaviness or pain.

Importantly, you should never ignore physical symptoms that may be linked to excess stress, says Dr. Bhatt.

Since stress is part of life, the key is to learn how to manage it so that it doesn’t result in physical or emotional harm. Dr. Bhatt offers six tips to manage stress.

Six Tips to Manage Stress

  1. Exercise is good for stress and everything else: Exercise helps lower blood pressure and enhances production of endorphins, substances in the body that promote a positive attitude so that you feel better.
  2. Avoid self-medicating: When we’re stressed, we tend to reach for alcohol, a cigarette or pump ourselves up with too much caffeine, but these strategies only exacerbate stress.
  3. Reach out and talk to someone: Meeting and talking with people about how to deal with stress, can be really helpful, whether it’s a primary care doctor, a therapist, a physical trainer that you work with or even a friend or family member. There are also a lot of stress management classes at schools, hospitals, local gyms, YMCAs and women’s clubs. It may be worth trying to go to one alone or with a friend or loved one.
  4. Find your joy: People who are able to find pleasure in doing other things, and are able to recognize that small stressful episodes aren’t the only things that count are better able to deal with stress. They try to focus on the good things in life. For example, people who participate in activities for themselves, whether its relaxation, meditation, a hobby or activity that they like, outside of their duties in life, seem to be better able to deal with stress.
  5. Rely on tried and true stress-stoppers: These are simple things that we don’t do enough, like counting to ten or taking deep breaths to calm down. We tell children to do this when they’re having temper tantrums, and we feel silly using these techniques ourselves, but they work. Another mechanism is just walking away from stressful situations, taking a breather and coming back.
  6. Turn to positive self-talk: Learn how to calm yourself down. If something bad happens, say to yourself, “I know that this didn’t work out but there will be opportunities.” It helps you put things in perspective for yourself.

This article first appeared on Wellocracy.