How Stress Makes You Sick… And What You Can Do About It
by Devon Berkhesier, Psy.D.
Stress goes hand in hand with change; when we have to adapt to some type of change, we experience stress. Although we typically think of stress as harmful, it can, in fact, be beneficial by providing the motivation that we need to succeed. But when stress becomes chronic or overwhelming, it can cause significant health problems.
Stress can affect virtually every system in the body, causing a wide range of physical ailments such as tension headaches, hypertension, stomach pain, and insomnia. Sometimes the effects of chronic stress are less immediate. For example, did you know that stress can suspend tissue repair, potentially resulting in osteoporosis and susceptibility to fractures? Stress can also worsen pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, chronic pain, and arthritis. Moreover, stress has been linked to an accelerated aging process.
While it’s clear that stress can negatively impact your health, there are steps that you can take to manage your stress effectively. Here are some tips for combating stress:
1. Increase Awareness
If you are able to recognize where you experience stress and tension in your body, you can start to release it. Keeping a stress-awareness diary can be helpful. This is simply a list of stressful events that you experience over a one-week period. Be sure to note what happened, the time of the event, and any physical or emotional symptom you experienced. As you understand what causes stress in your life and how it impacts you, you can start making small changes to minimize stress or to deal with it more proactively.
Proper breathing is a simple way to manage stress, and it’s a useful tool because you can do it anywhere! In order to be effective, breathing needs to be diaphragmatic (which means from the diaphragm rather than shallow breathing from the chest). To make sure that you’re breathing properly, lie on the floor with one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest. You should feel your abdomen rise with each inhalation, and fall with each exhalation. Whenever you feel stressed, take a few moments to simply breathe. (There are a wide range of specific breathing exercises that you can practice. A quick internet search of “breathing exercises” will net a lot of easy-to-use techniques.)
Exercise is a natural stress-reliever. It doesn’t have to be too long or strenuous either; even a quick walk around the neighborhood can help. Committing to just 20 minutes of exercise each day can have a huge impact on decreasing stress.
Although it can be tempting to reach for that donut when you feel stressed, poor nutrition only makes the physical effects of stress worse. Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help prevent or control stress-related ailments, such as hypertension and heart disease. When eating, make sure to take time to actually enjoy the meal. Eating frequent, calm meals can help keep your blood sugar stable and can provide a time for relaxation. For more information about what a healthy diet consists of, visit www.mypyramid.gov.