Coping strategies can help reduce stress
and keep it from becoming a chronic problem
By: Les Riess, M.D.
Stress is something most of us experience every day. It occurs when you feel that the things happening to you are more than you can handle. It might be as simple as being late for an appointment, or as complex as losing a loved one or going through a divorce. Stress can come in many forms and from many sources.
A certain amount of stress in your life is probably unavoidable, and can actually be useful in some ways. The body’s natural reaction to stress includes production of certain hormones that can speed up your heart, make you breathe faster and give you a burst of energy. In small doses, this reaction might help you to be more efficient and get more done. But, if your body is continually reacting to stress, the effects can become negative.
Tension is often the first sign of stress. You can feel tension in your muscles – they become tight and hard. A tense mind makes you feel jumpy and irritable. Other symptoms of stress are increased heartbeat, headache, backache, rapid breathing, sweaty palms, upset stomach, feeling irritable, worn out and drained of energy. You might find yourself worrying about small things and you may doubt your ability to do things that you know you can do.
Chronic stress can contribute to ongoing health conditions. It has been linked to cardiovascular disease, headaches, stomach problems, back pain, muscle aches, neck pain, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, skin problems and insomnia. Stress can weaken the immune system, making it more difficult for you to fight off disease. It can affect your mood and emotions, making you feel tense and even depressed.
Everyone experiences stress; but not everyone responds to it in the same way. The way that stress affects you depends on a number of factors. One of these is genetic. Some people may be more biologically-sensitive to stress. Past experiences with stress and how you perceive stress are two other factors. Your social supports also impact the way that stress affects you. People with strong social networks are more likely to be able to handle stress. Finally, the way that you deal with stress – or your coping strategies – can help to minimize the negative effects that stress has in your life.
Coping strategies typically involve relaxation techniques. Some techniques work to relax the mind, others the body. When it comes to stress management, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. It’s a matter of finding what works best for you, and then using these methods until they become habits that are part of your lifestyle.
Some common techniques used to relax the mind include: meditation, listening to music, writing or talking about your feelings. In addition, laughter is sometimes the best medicine. It’s becoming widely accepted that humor is a useful tool for reducing stress.
When choosing coping techniques, it’s just as important to relax your body as it is your mind. Physical activity – especially aerobic activity – can counteract the harmful effects of stress. Stretching is another good way to relieve muscle tension. An active hobby that you enjoy, such as gardening or bowling, can be beneficial. Interacting with pets can be an effecting coping technique. Helping others – through volunteer work – can help take your mind off your own stress. Some people find that breathing exercises, muscle relaxation and aromatherapy help them relax. When it comes to stress management, it’s important to find what works for you and stick with it.
Lifestyle choices can influence the way that stress affects your life. To better prepare yourself to deal with stress, make sure you eat a healthy diet. Get a good night’s sleep. Establish a regular exercise routine. Cultivate friendships and other positive social relationships. Do something that you enjoy, even if it just for a short amount of time. Learn to say no to commitments that don’t fit into your schedule. Make sure you are managing your time effectively. Don’t smoke. Avoid alcohol.
If you find that stress has become overwhelming, or that it is affecting your physical or emotional health, you may want to seek professional help. A health care professional or counselor can help you evaluate your stress and look for ways to reduce and eliminate it.
We all have to deal with a certain amount of stress. At low levels, stress shouldn’t have a significant impact on your life. But, if it becomes chronic, stress can affect your health in numerous ways. The key to handling stress effectively is to identify stressors, work to eliminate or reduce them, and to develop healthy coping techniques for dealing with the stress that can’t be eliminated.
Dr. Riess is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.