Several times over the past year, there were multiple stories of young women missing from their homes, children abducted or abused, cases of domestic violence, or the all too familiar story of someone losing their job and home. There were countless stories of people dying unexpectantly in a motor vehicle accident while driving their usual work route. I, on occasion have encountered patients who have experienced such tragedy in their own personal lives or within their families. These patients often presented to me stating that “they are stressed.” What is stress? How is it treated? Does being stressed mean that you are crazy?
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines stress as: “any physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” Think of stress as anything that is weighing down on you like some type of gravitational force. As defined by Webster, this unwanted pressure then starts to produce deleterious effects on your body.
So to be clear, not all stress is bad. When you are in danger, your body releases stress hormones that cause your pulse to increase, your muscles tense up, you breathe much faster, and your brain uses more oxygen and increases its activity. All of these functions are done for survival. This is the “Fight or Flight” response. For example, picture yourself being chased by a vicious appearing grizzly bear! I am certain that just the thought of that caused your pulse rate to rise. In contrast, chronic stress can suppress functions that are not needed for immediate survival. For instance, your immune system could be lowered and your reproductive system could cease to work normally.
How do you know if you are stressed? What are some of the symptoms? Do they mimic other conditions? What do you do about it?
Have you ever wondered why you are getting headaches three to four days per week? Headaches are one of the more common side effects of stress. These headaches usually feel like someone has your head in a vice grip. It can be anywhere on the head but most often is located across the forehead and temple. These headaches are called tension headaches. However, migraine headaches can also be caused by stress. Migraines are preceded by an aura (smell, funny taste, or vision problems) and may be associated with nausea, vomiting, and photophobia (avoidance of bright light). Unfortunately, migraines can last for several days.
A myriad of abdominal problems can exist as a result of stress, acute or chronic. Unfortunately, upset stomachs, problems with diarrhea or constipation, anorexia, nausea, or vomiting can illicit fears of other serious medical conditions and start an avalanche of expensive tests for investigation. Most of the time these individuals are taking various medications to alleviate each of the symptoms without much relief. IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome is also often caused by stress.
Insomnia is a type of sleep disorder that is best described by a difficulty falling and/or staying asleep. The insomnia may be acute or chronic. Although insomnia can be caused by sleep apnea, pain, or other chronic illness, please do not forget about stress. Most people who experience stressful situations during the day have difficulty shutting off their brains at night to relax. These individuals are constantly re-living the drama from the morning. This lack of sleep can then increase the likelihood of the headaches that were previously mentioned.
Depression is probably one of the final stages of stress. Depression within itself can cause sleeping problems, thoughts of low self-worth, decreased libido, lack of interest, overeating, or even thoughts of suicide. These symptoms may come on gradually but can overwhelm you to the point that you are no longer functioning normally in your day to day routine. Co-workers, family and friends may also notice that something is wrong at this point as well.
Important Coping Mechanisms for Stress
Schedule regular relaxing activities like reading or listening to jazz
Notice the early warning signs of stress
Eat a healthy diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables
Remove stressful people and situations from your life
SEEK HELP EARLY
If you are overwhelmed by stress, please seek help from a health professional.
Yours in Service,
Denise Hooks-Anderson, M.D.
SLUCare Family Medicine