Q: How does stress negatively affect my health and what can I do to manage it?
A: Stress is a normal part of life. Stress in small doses can be healthy; it can motivate you to work harder, think faster, and perform better for a short period of time. However, when stress begins to permeate your daily life it can cause long-term health effects.
Here's how it works:
Stress is a physical and emotional reaction that occurs when pressures exceed your normal coping mechanism. When you experience stress, your body releases an excess of adrenaline and cortisol, which speed up your blood pressure, digestive system (commonly known as "butterflies" in your stomach), and production of glucose.
After the initial "fight or flight" response, your body is supposed to return to a normal, relaxed state. However, without proper stress-management techniques, the continuous pressures can lead to debilitating, chronic stress.
People often mistake chronic stress for unrelated illnesses, so it is important to recognize the early signs of stress. Traditional signs include headaches, fatigue, and lack of focus. People with chronic stress can experience insomnia, lethargy, heart palpitations and frequent colds due to a weakened immune system.
To effectively manage stress, first identify the source. Ask yourself questions about important lifestyle factors:
How is your home life?
How is your work life?
How often do you engage in stress-relieving activities?
How often do you exercise?
How often do you eat healthy meals?
Your primary-care physician can also help you identify potential signs and lifestyle factors contributing to stress.
Once you've determined the cause of your stress, set self-maintenance goals to improve your mental health. Eat better. Exercise more. Schedule activities that give you time and distance away from your stressors.
Your physician may also suggest treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which can address current stress factors and change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors.
If your stress still persists, speak to your physician about potential medication options. However, that should remain a last resort.
Aja Jackson DeVose, D.O., is a primary-care physician at Mercy Philadelphia Hospital.