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Stress and the Role it Plays in Your Health

It is no secret that stress can play a profound impact on all facets of health and wellness. Whether physical, emotional or relational, when poorly managed, stress can wreak havoc on your life. While life will likely never be without stress, learning to understand and manage stressors can minimize their impact on your health and total wellness.

Stress and Health

The human body has an innate ability to manage stress. When met with a threat, the body responds by releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prep the body to respond with action; heart rate and blood pressure increase, breathing increases, muscles tense and senses become acute. This is the body’s normal response to a stressful or dangerous situation. Nearly everyone has experienced the stress response. It could have been something simple like giving a presentation or something tragic and life-altering.

Your body’s stress response can occur in an emergent situation like a car accident or a non-life-threatening situation such as a potential job lay off. In an acute stress setting, the body responds and returns to normal once the perceived stressor has passed. In long-term stressful situation, the body’s stress response remains engaged. The human body is equipped with the ability to manage stress from a physical standpoint. However, long-term stress can lead to chronic, life-altering illness.

When an individual’s stress response never has the opportunity to take a break, the body is continually exposed to the release of stress hormones. This can cause a disruption in many of the body’s systems. As such, chronic stress can lead to a host of health problems. Anxiety, depression and insomnia remain a few of the most common results of chronic stress. Many adults report stress as a key component of poor sleep. Digestive problems may also be experienced as a result of long-term stress, research has found the gut to be remarkably sensitive to stress. The regular release of certain stress hormones, particularly cortisol is often associated with weight gain and obesity. Research is supporting the relationship between chronic stress and obesity. Chronic stress is associated with heart disease and may lead to long-term memory and concentration impairment. There may also be a significant relationship between chronic stress and addiction.

Stress is a normal, natural reaction of the human body, and the body is designed to react to it. However, the human body is not designed to react to long-term or chronic stress. This can lead to detrimental health consequences. As such, it’s important to understand the source of stress as well as to learn better methods of managing it.

Family Obligations

Family is an enormous part of every-day life but can also represent a huge percentage of our stress. Whether is helping aging parents, raising kids or simply dealing with the day-to-day ins and outs of marriage, there are numerous familial situations that can contribute to stress. If you can identify these situations and develop a plan to manage them, you can reduce the stress associated.

The first step in managing family stress is identifying where the stress is coming from. If you’re feeling buried, like all areas of your family life are causing stress, take some time to unpack what’s going on. If there is a child that is acting out, an unhappy spouse or simply not enough time to go around to the entire family, take the time to look at the root of each struggle. Very often some of these challenges will fall under a couple different categories; time management and boundaries.

Time Management

When it comes to family, managing time can be a key element in reducing stress in this area. There are so many things competing for your time; work, kids, extracurricular activities, spouse, household chores, pets, etc. Not to mention any down time to work out, browse social media, watch TV or read. Sometimes it may seem like there is always something going on, and usually that is exactly the case. There is too much going on and only 24 hours in a day.

With a long list of to-dos, learning to manage time effectively can greatly reduce stress levels. Research in college students showed a great reduction in anxiety and stress when effective time management skills were employed.

Some tricks to better managing your time include the following:

  • Make a list and write it down

If you go to the grocery store without a list, you end up buying items that you already have at home and you’ll likely forget a few of the items you needed. The same thing happens to your to-do list if it’s not written down. You’ll complete tasks that are not on it, and forget the tasks that are. Write down your to-dos on a daily basis from the top to the bottom and don’t deviate from them.

  • Don’t get distracted

Distractions are the ultimate killer of effective time management. Facebook, TV, and text messaging are all very common distractions that keep you from accomplishing what you need to get done. Identify your distractions and when they get in the way, redirect yourself back to the task at hand.

  • Continually Prioritize

Your to-do list needs to be continually prioritized from the most important to the least important on a day to day basis. This ensures that you accomplish you’re most important tasks first.

Effectively managing your time can greatly reduce stress. If you constantly feel like there are not enough hours in the day, try some of the steps above to establish a routine that allows you to meet all of your top priorities, including your family.

Boundaries

Very often familial stress is experienced, in part, because of a lack of boundaries. Sometimes family members feel entitled to play an enormous role in your life, over-stepping boundaries on every level. In unhealthy relationships like these, it is especially important to set and abide by firm boundaries. Whether it’s an intrusive parent, sibling that constantly wants to borrow money or adult child that wants to move back home, boundaries are necessary to maintain control of your life and minimize your stress.

Occupational Stress

Unfortunately, occupational stress is incredibly common in the United States. This is in part related to the rapid speed at which we work and the demands placed upon the workforce. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published data indicating that 40% of surveyed workers reported their job as very or extremely stressful and 26% of workers reported feeling burned out because of their job. Occupational stress is a very serious, growing concern.

There are numerous contributors to workplace stress including working conditions, workload demands, confusing expectations and challenging coworkers. Chronic workplace stress can result in the same health problems associated with stress by other causes. It’s important to identify workplace stress and make strides to correct or prevent it. The first step is identifying the source of the stress or the problem that is resulting in stress. Secondly, make a plan to rectify the problem; talk to management, change hours, have a discussion with a co-worker, etc. And thirdly, monitor the situation. If there is no resolution after a discussion with management, consider a second discussion. If after much effort it appears that the workplace situation is not improving, it may be time to consider an alternate employment opportunity.

Financial

Stress over money and finances is a common concern among millions of people. Making ends meet, staying above water, and keeping the bills paid are often a struggle. Unfortunately, many Americans pay for their financial stress with their health. Long term financial stress can contribute to poor health habits and chronic disease. Managing financial stress is important to living a well-balanced life.

The important element to recognize about finances and financial stress is that, like other areas of life, finances can be organized and financial stress can be reduced with a plan. The most important key to reducing your financial stress is creating a budget. A budget will help you organize your money, stay on top of your bills, as well as give you permission to spend on pre-determined wants. Financial guru Dave Ramsey often quotes John Maxwell saying, “A budget it telling your money where to go instead of wondering where it went”. Creating a budget is creating a game plan for your money. This alleviates stress because every dollar is accounted for. There are several free online budgeting platforms; Every Dollar, and Mvelopes are two of the most popular. Try utilizing a budget to decrease your financial stress and improve your overall health and wellness.

Managing Stress

Stress remains an important aspect in everyone’s life. Despite its glaring impact on health, the American Psychological Association conducted a study concluding that over 33% of Americans never discuss stress management with their doctor or health care provider. Now knowing the health impacts of stress, this glaring statistic tells us that Americans are stressed but don’t recognize the profound health consequences of their stress. Talking to a health care provider about stress is a great step towards management and overall impact of stress on health.

There are several other simple ways to help manage daily stress. Exercise is a fabulous way to reduce stress and increase feel-good endorphins in the brain. Research continues to support regular exercise as a great stress reliever and mood booster. Meditation is another tool to use to relieve stress. Mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing on one element for a single length of time. The object of focus could be breathing, a sound, or a phrase. This is beneficial because your brain is allowed the opportunity to focus on just one thing, and if it wanders, you redirect it back to its focus. Focusing on just one thing, like breathing, for as little as 10 minutes can surprisingly reduce stress and improve mood.

Social support represents another key, but often missed, resource in stress management. Don’t underestimate the power of family, friends, laughter and genuine human interaction in stress reduction. Healthy relationships are a source of encouragement, guidance, humor, and love. These relationships are those that alleviate stress, not increase it. Surround yourself with supportive people who can lift you up and lend you a listening ear.

I hope you have found these tips helpful in reducing your stress. Here’s to a healthier you.

About the Author

Christopher Burton, MD is a physician, speaker, coach and author, practicing in Pensacola, FL. He specializes in Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, which focuses on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of conditions - particularly those of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems - that may produce temporary or permanent impairment of function. Dr. Burton also provides one-on-one Health & Wellness Coaching for select clients who want to improve their life significantly. In addition to his practice and coaching, he actively lectures on health, nutrition and exercise for healthcare groups, colleges, and businesses, and travels internationally teaching on various topics including the treatment and rehabilitation of athletes.

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