Do you feel like a mouse running on a treadmill getting nowhere? Do you work more than 60 hours a week and hardly get a weekend off? Are you angry all the time because you only ever see your little ones asleep? Take a chill pill – stress is making you sick.
Time magazine’s June 6, 1983 cover story called stress “The Epidemic of the Eighties” and a leading health problem in America. No doubt the situation has progressively worsened since then. The American Institute of Stress claims that it is an even bigger health threat than cancer or AIDS. An estimated 75-90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress related problems.
However, stress is hardly unique to the United States. Millions of people are effected by it in Britain, Europe and Asia and South Africa was ranked the second most stressed nation on the planet in a study released by Bloomberg.
What harmful effect can stress have upon you and your loved ones? How can you learn to cope?
When you sense danger – whether it’s real or imagined – the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, it can save your life.
However, if this mechanism is triggered too easily, or when there are too many stressors at one time, it can undermine your mental and physical health and become harmful.
Stress is only harmful when it becomes overwhelming, or is poorly managed. This is when its negative effects appear. Consider some common sources of stress.
Workers are often stressed on their jobs because of poor communication between management and employees. Management gives workers little say in decisions that affect them, there are conflicts with fellow workers, or there is job insecurity and/or inadequate pay. Coping with the strains of the workplace may leave you with little energy to deal with the demands of your families. And those demands can be enormous. Financial problems can also be a potent source of family stress. Financial problems cause tension. When you do not have the money to cover all the expenses in the home, it affects your mood.
Single parents face high levels of stress as they try to meet the needs of their families. Getting up early to prepare breakfast, dressing children and dropping them off at school, rushing to be at work on time, and then dealing with the demands of a job may leave a single parent physically and emotionally exhausted. A single parent’s life is like a pressure cooker just waiting to explode!
Many young people experience high levels of stress too. They must deal with the physical and emotional changes of puberty. There are also the pressures of school. The typical school day is fraught with problems and pressures creating stress – in academics, sports, in peer relationships and in interchanges with teachers.
Young or old, and whether it comes from work or school, chronic stress can take a heavy toll on your health. One medical writer explains that the stress response of the body is like an airplane getting ready for take-off. When you feel stress, your heart rate and blood pressure soar. Your levels of blood sugar rise. Hormones are released. If stress becomes persistent, the brain, heart, lungs, vessels, and muscles become chronically over or under-activated. This may produce physical or psychological damage over time. The list of illnesses in which stress may play a role is alarmingly long. These include heart disease, stroke, immune disorders, cancer, musculo-skeletal disorders, and diabetes, to name just a few.
Get moving. Regular exercise can lift your mood and serve as a distraction from worries. Rhythmic exercises such as walking, running, swimming, and dancing are particularly effective, especially if you exercise mindfully.
Connect to others. The simple act of talking face-to-face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress when you’re feeling agitated or insecure. Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another human being can help calm and soothe your nervous system. So, spend time with people who make you feel good and don’t let your responsibilities keep you from having a social life.
Engage your senses. Another fast way to relieve stress is by engaging one or more of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you.
Learn to relax. You can’t completely eliminate stress from your life, but you can control how much it affects you. Relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and deep breathing activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of restfulness that is the polar opposite of the stress response. When practiced regularly, these activities can reduce your everyday stress levels and boost feelings of joy and serenity. They also increase your ability to stay calm and collected under pressure.
Eat a healthy diet. The food you eat can improve or worsen your mood and affect your ability to cope with life’s stressors. Eating a diet full of processed and convenience food, refined carbohydrates, and sugary snacks can worsen symptoms of stress while eating a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, high-quality protein, and omega-3 fatty acids, can help you better cope with life’s ups and downs.
Get your rest. Feeling tired can increase stress by causing you to think irrationally. At the same time, chronic stress can disrupt your sleep. Whether you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, there are plenty of ways to improve your sleep so you feel less stressed and more productive and emotionally balanced.
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