We all know (more or less) what stress is. Dictionary.com defines it as:
a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.
Interestingly, stress in this emotional context is a relatively new term, first coined by Hans Selye in 1936. He defined it as, “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”
What may surprise you is how large an impact stress has on our individual health and well-being. While the statistics vary, it is well understood by physicians (especially primary care) that a significant percentage of physical illnesses and diseases are exacerbated – if not caused by – stress.
Some studies suggest that stress accounts for the third highest care expenditure in the country, behind only heart disease and cancer.
Stress reaction – the physiologic impact on our body
Over years of study, researchers have learned more about the long-term effects chronic stress has on physical and psychological health. Repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body and can contribute to high blood pressure, the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction.
More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).
When your body is in the stress response, you breathe faster, your heart beats more rapidly, and your pulse and blood pressure rise. The airways in your lungs open to take in more oxygen for your brain. Your senses become sharper and nutrients from an increase in blood sugar and the release of fats into your bloodstream supply energy to your body.
All of this is great… if you’re in immediate danger. But if it happens multiple times a day, because your work or family life are eliciting this response, it can lead to health problems.
Suggestions for reducing stress
During physician visits with our clients, the topic of stress invariably comes up. That’s important and something I welcome. Unfortunately, in terms of giving clients tools and techniques for reducing stress, I find most of these conversations to be less than fruitful.
We are always going to have stress in our lives in some form or another. Even so, there are things we can do to raise awareness and promote resilience. And while I don’t claim to have all the answers – nor do I do all I know I should to reduce my own stress! – I have found a number of things to be helpful.
With that in mind, and with the hope of helping you and/or your loved ones make these changes, I’d like to offer some specific suggestions.
Assess a typical day
One thing we always do during our new client assessments is review the details of a typical day. We ask clients things like: When do you get out of bed? What is the quality of your sleep? Who do you interact with? When and what do you eat? What type of exercise do you do and how often?
This review is incredibly revealing. In older adults, we often discover social isolation, poor eating habits, excessive alcohol intake, no exercise, and the use of many over the counter medications to combat poor sleep.
This assessment of “what is” helps in identifying causes.
Create a plan to change
Once you identify contributors to increased stress, it’s important to create a plan to change. Not a lot at once – just one thing at a time, so that you can see how it relates to other factors.
For example, the impact of alcohol intake combined with medications can have a significant, negative impact on the quality of sleep. This is easily changeable and can produce great rewards (a single night of high quality, restorative sleep can make that looming deadline you are working towards, that is causing so much stress, seem more achievable).
I often recommend, as well, including some form of mindfulness/meditative practice each day. This elicits the relaxation response – the opposite of the fight or flight response – and may include some combination of deep abdominal breathing, focus on a soothing word (such as “peace” or “calm”), visualization of tranquil scenes, repetitive prayer, yoga, or tai chi.
In my experience, just fifteen minutes each day listening to a meditation CD leads to a noticeable reduction in my stress level.
Get help from others
The Buffer Theory holds that, “social support moderates the power of psychosocial adversity to precipitate episodes of illness.” In other words, relationships matter! Social supports such as confidants, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, relatives, spouses, and companions, all contribute to our well-being and, in turn, stress reduction.
For me, it’s the connections with family and friends that help me maintain my composure and overall satisfaction during the holidays and throughout the year.
Stress is always going to be a part of our lives. And while it’s not entirely a negative thing, it does require some degree of management so as not to lead to poor health. Interventions to reduce stress have the potential to not only improve our overall wellbeing, but to substantially reduce healthcare utilization as well.
It’s time we make changes, both in our healthcare practices to help individuals appreciate the impact of stress, and in our lives, to improve their overall quality.