Stress is such an incredibly powerful influence that even if you are doing everything right in terms of diet, nutrition and exercise, it can still crush your efforts to stay healthy. Prolonged periods of too much stress can contribute significantly and directly to many conditions, ranging from reduced quality of life to deadly diseases such as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and many others. It contributes to fatigue, bacterial and viral infections, inflammatory illness, blood-sugar problems, weight gain, intestinal distress, headaches and most other disorders. Stress-related problems account for more than 75 percent of all visits to primary-care physicians and are responsible each day for millions of people needing to take time off work and school. So, stress comes with a monetary price tag as well as a toll on your health.
It’s important to remember that stress is a normal part of life and health, and excess stress is not without a remedy. The body has a great coping mechanism for stress — the hormones of the adrenal glands and related nervous system function. However, when the adrenal glands are overworked, bodywide problems can result.
Physical stresses are strains on the body itself. Overworking your muscles is an example of a physical stress. Slight physical stress is what makes exercise beneficial, and is an example of how some stress can help promote health. However, too much physical stress without adequate recovery can potentially result in many problems. Another example of physical stress is wearing shoes that don’t fit right; while you don’t always feel it in your feet, it may cause problems elsewhere in your body. Likewise, dental stress can affect more than your mouth, often causing stomach dysfunction, shoulder, neck or head pain. Other physical stresses include poor posture, eye strain, and many other situations that adversely impact the mechanical body. Physical stress can result in physical problems, but also in chemical or mental/emotional problems.
Chemicals from any source can affect body chemistry and cause stress. This includes dietary and nutritional imbalances such as too much or too little food or nutrients, excess caffeine or drugs, and ingestion of chemicals from food and water supplies. Other sources of chemical stress include those in the air — second-hand smoke, indoor and outdoor air pollution and many others. Chemical stresses can cause indigestion, fatigue, insomnia, or even physical and emotional problems.
Mental and Emotional Stress
Mental and emotional stress is the type with which most people are familiar. This includes tension, anxiety and depression. Mental stress may contribute to pain, moods of anxiety or depression, and loss of enthusiasm or motivation, and can lead to physical and chemical problems as well. Mental stress also affects cognition, including sensation, perception, learning, concept formation and decision-making.
Stress can come from anywhere: your job, family, other people, your emotions, infections, allergic reactions, physical trauma and exertion, even the weather. Remember, not all stress is negative. Since it evokes a reaction in the body, the outcome may be a positive one — the benefit of exercise is one example. By mildly stressing your body, over time and through adaptation, your body adapts to perform better. But that same stressor — your workout — can become negative if you go too far beyond the body’s ability to recover from it.
Usually people are stressed in more than one area, and frequently by all three types. And, stress is cumulative. The response to a physical stress from the weekend’s yard work may be amplified by Monday’s chemical stress of too much coffee or the wrong foods, further compounded with a family-related mental stress on Tuesday and another with the boss on Wednesday. All of this will affect your performance at an important meeting on Friday.
The weather is also a potential stressor, with certain people more vulnerable. Weather stress may affect us physically, chemically or mentally. Extremes in temperature or humidity, very low barometric pressure, and the sun are stressors. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a good example of how the weather at certain times of year (typically in the fall and winter) can have a dramatic effect on many people.
Some people accumulate so much stress they lose track of it, which becomes more of a stress. The first thing to do with stress is to make sure you’re aware of it. The remedy? Write it all down.
Making Your Stress List
Being more aware of your physical, chemical and mental stress is a big step for improving health. Reducing or eliminating unnecessary stress from your life will give your body a better chance to cope with other stresses you may not be able to change right now. This process becomes a lot easier if you write your stresses down on paper. Once you can “see” your stress listed on paper, it will be easier to manage.
- On a page, make three columns, one each for physical, chemical, and mental stresses.
- In each category, write down your stresses. (This may take several days to complete since you probably won’t think of all your different stresses right away.)
- When you’re done, prioritize by placing the biggest stress of each category on top. Then, work on reducing or eliminating one stress at a time. Or, if you can handle it, work on one stress at a time from each category.
- As you make your list put a star by the stresses over which you have some control. This may include unhealthy eating habits like rushing or skipping your meals, drinking too much coffee or not taking time to exercise.
- Simply draw a line through those stresses that you can’t control. If there’s nothing you can do about them anyway, don’t worry about them for now. Many people expend lots of energy on stresses they can’t or won’t do anything about. This may include job stress or the weather, though in reality, almost any stress can be modified or eliminated — it’s just a question of how far you’re willing to go for optimal health.
- As time goes on, you may want to reconsider some of the items you’ve crossed off. You’ll realize that changing jobs is a must, or moving to a more compatible climate is necessary for your health.
Start with your starred stresses first, because you have control over them — not that it’s always easy. Circle the three biggest stresses from the starred list and begin to work on them. You may be able to improve on some and totally eliminate others. Some will require habit changes. It’s a big task, but one that will return great benefits. When you’ve succeeded in eliminating or modifying each one, cross it off your list and circle the three next most stressful ones, so you always have three to work on.
Other stress strategies
In addition to your stress list, you’re probably familiar with other strategies for dealing with stress, though you may not use them. Here’s a reminder:
- Learn to say “no” when asked to do something you really don’t want to do. Ask yourself if you really want to do this.
- Decide not to waste your time worrying about the past or the future. That’s not to say you should ignore the past or not plan for the future. Live in the present.
- Learn some relaxation techniques, and perform them regularly. The most powerful one is respiratory biofeedback described previously. An easy walk by yourself can also be a great way to relax.
- When you’re concerned about something, talk it over with someone you trust.
- Simplify your life. Start by eliminating trivia. Ask yourself: “Is this really important?”
- Prioritize your busy schedule; do the most important things first. But don’t neglect the enjoyable things. Before getting out of bed in the morning, ask yourself: “What fun things do I have planned for today?”
- Know your passion and pursue it.
What’s most important about stress is that too much of it interferes with rest. Or more accurately, recovering from excess stress requires more rest. If you don’t get enough rest, usually in the form of sleep, the effects of stress will continue accumulating. One of the questions to ask yourself is whether you’re getting enough sleep, considering the amount of stress you have. As you will see, one of the symptoms of excess stress is insomnia.