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Decreasing stress

Stress is all around us. We can't escape it. Stress is any physical, mental or emotional reaction experienced as a result of changes and demands in life, whether it be something positive such as the birth of a child, or negative as in a significant loss or death. In fact, stress is common in all life events.

Sources of stress

There are four major sources of stress:

  • Environmental challenges such as inclement weather, noise and traffic;
  • Social stressors such as demands on time and attention, finances, deadlines and giving presentations;
  • Physiological stressors of adolescence, aging, inadequate exercise, poor nutrition and sleep problems; and
  • Our thoughts, what we tell ourselves about the events of the day.

Good stress vs. bad stress

Not all stress is bad. Sometimes positive stress (eustress) can motivate and challenge us. However, it's when stress becomes more prolonged and overwhelming that negative stress (distress) sets in.

The body responds to stress in three stages: alarm, resistance and exhaustion.

Common symptoms of the alarm stage include fear and frustration. At this stage, the body may respond by releasing hormones in the bloodstream which may cause an increase in the heart rate which sends more blood to the heart and other large muscles and an increase in breathing and perspiration. In general, the body becomes ready for action -- what we call the fight or flight syndrome. The body is ready to either deal with the stressor or run away from it.

After the alarm stage, the body continues to stay alert to the perceived threat until the resistance stage, where the brain signals "all is clear." At that time, the brain stops producing the chemicals that caused the physical reaction. When the alarm stage continues over a prolonged time, problems with stress occur, leading to the exhaustion stage. This unrelieved stress can lead to many health problems.

In addition to just weighing heavily on the mind, studies indicate stress can contribute to physical illnesses. Experts suggest 80 to 90 percent of all disease is directly, or indirectly, related to stress. Recent studies indicate stress can contribute to physical illnesses such as hypertension, migraine headaches, chronic pain, cancer and heart disease.

Dealing with stress

The first step to dealing with stress is becoming aware of some of the early symptoms such as:

  • Irritability
  • Migraine or tension headaches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Grinding teeth
  • Forgetfulness
  • Panic attacks
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tension

Once we are aware of the symptoms of stress, we need to develop strategies for keeping stress under control.

Some helpful stress-reducing tips include:

  • Change the way you talk to yourself. You may not be able to control the timing of stressful events, but you can control your reaction to them. Use your mind to relax your body.
  • Try physical exercise. Exercise helps strengthen the body's ability to deal with stress, and stimulates the body's production of chemicals called endorphins which produce feelings of well-being.
  • Take mini work breaks. Spend a few moments doing deep breathing exercises or visualizing something pleasant. A few minutes of this type of relaxation is just as relaxing as taking a short nap.
  • Develop leisure activities. Finding hobbies you enjoy can be very rewarding and relaxing.
  • Eat a proper diet. A healthy diet helps us perform at peak performance. Eating lots of fiber and starches can help calm us.
  • Talk things out. Stress and tension affect our feelings and emotions. When we can actually express those feelings to others, we are better able to understand and cope with them. It is important to have at least one friend, family member or professional with whom we can talk and be heard.
  • Set limits. Learning to set limits and say "no" when appropriate can help us manage time and attention more effectively.

The Baptist Health Counseling at Baptist Health Louisville offers help in learning how to deal more effectively with stress and offers outpatient counseling at Baptist Health La Grange. For more information, call the 24-hour Access Center at (502) 222-3330 or toll-free at 1-800-478-1105.