Can stress make us sick? We know the answer. So what can we do about it? How do we reduce our stress — especially if short on time and money?
No, that doesn’t mean chewing your way through a mountain of Tums!
Whatever is the source of your ongoing agita, let’s face it. Stress alters mood, sleep, and behaviors. It damages our relationships. Sure, we can talk about “managing” stress, and our doctors talk about it — or rather, they lecture — but who explains the full spectrum of symptoms? How do we know if our stress is hovering near good “Quick on Your Feet” adrenaline or “Danger, Will Robinson?”
And what, realistically, can most of us do?
Symptoms of Stress
Symptoms of stress?
Most of us are aware of high blood pressure, stomach distress, migraines and other indications that we need to take action. (Disclaimer: I am not a physician; if you know you’re not feeling well, consult a medical professional.) And yet, I thought I knew the symptoms of stress, and generally speaking, the health impacts. However, digging deeper, it’s clear the list of symptoms is extensive.
Consider this handling of stress symptoms according to the Mayo Clinic, and note the physical symptoms as well as those manifested through mood and behaviors.
This is not a complete list! (Please visit the full article at the link above.)
- Among the physical symptoms: fatigue, headache, sleep problems, libido changes
- Among the mood symptoms: anxiety, restlessness, irritability, depression
- Among the behavioral symptoms: overeating, undereating, drug or alcohol abuse, social withdrawal
Stress Hormones, Stress Causes
I have never forgotten an old Consumer Reports cover story, “Is Stress Making You Sick,” from a few years back. It lists many of these same symptoms, and explains how stress works on the body producing hormones “such as adrenaline and cortisol,” which, over long periods, can be associated with irritability, fatigue, headaches, and digestive problems. The possibility of links to early onset of dementia and stroke are also mentioned.
Scared yet? I am.
A more recent source, this 2015 report from CBS News, addresses the top causes of stress in the U.S., and they are:
- Money concerns
- Health concerns
- Job concerns
- Family issues (all sorts)
Do note: Financial worries are number one on the list.
Life in the Real World
Naturally, there are those who will say “Whatever you’re doing that’s stressing you out, stop doing it!”
Not so simple when the “whatever” is working two jobs to pay the bills, or refereeing three kids while looking for a job, or toughing out a particularly painful period in marriage, or sinking deeper into debt in a drawn-out divorce.
Most of us live in the Real World where options like “Don’t do that” or “Change jobs” or “Leave the bastard” are glib, thoughtless, simplistic pieces of advice.
So then what?
And if money worries are top of our list, how do we make necessary changes if we don’t have the bucks?
7 Ways to Fight Stress
Are there only seven ways to reduce stress? Of course not. But here is a list of some of my personal favorites, frequently included in articles on the subject.
My top 7 stress reducers:
- Turn to friends. Talk. It’s free, it’s bonding, it’s incredibly helpful, but do be careful not to abuse the privilege.
- Exercise. Take a run, a brisk walk, or a fitness class. (Exercise works wonders, physically and emotionally, and a class may be more affordable than you think.*)
- Meditate. (Fabulous if you can manage it. I’m still trying.)
- Seek counsel. If you know you’re carrying a complicated load and if you can possibly afford it, seek a professional’s advice.**
- Get hands on. Enjoy massage, or other therapeutic physical means to unwind.***
- Assess expectations. Weigh and measure your options, realistically. Research. Ask questions. Reset expectations relative to goals, priorities, and responsibilities.
- Self-soothing. Self-medicating in very moderate ways eases stress — a glass of wine at the end of the day, a passionate night with your lover, that modest bar of dark chocolate.
That last? Pay attention. Moderation!
Also tied to these self-medicating behaviors — quality and quantity of sleep, which can be encouraged by some and disrupted by others.
Data on Reasons for Stress
We saw the reasons that are cited for our stress — money, job, health, family. So how are they ranked?
Referencing an American Psychological Association Report, the CBS News article tells us:
Financial worries served as a significant source of stress for 64 percent of adults in 2014, ranking higher than three other major sources of stress: work (60 percent), family responsibilities (47 percent), and health concerns (46 percent).
Are we surprised? And don’t we understand the ways financial worries erode relationships, not to mention impact our decisions pertaining to jobs and access to healthcare?
A variety of other sources high on the list include parenting issues, relationship issues, and divorce.
So if stress is potentially killing us (or making us sick), should we leave our stressful jobs, marriages, or anything else that’s part of this mix? What if self-preservation and “stability” are at odds? What if self-preservation and responsibilty are in conflict!
Easy Responses Are Not Helpful
When I look at the causes of stress for most Americans — money, work, personal health — I can rattle off the usual clichés: Downsize if you have money worries (but we may have done that already); take better care of yourself (food, exercise, sleep) — not so simple, though improvements are likely possible; when it comes to work-related stresses such as an unrelenting schedule, a difficult boss or co-worker, a job we hate but need for the money — “just leave” may not be an option depending on skills, market, or age.
But up against “drop dead” from heart attack or stroke? We might get creative about transitioning to some sort of solution, or at least asking for suggestions. And there certainly are ways to comfort someone who is stressed that do not involve dismissing or diminishing their concerns.
What helps me: taking action, refusing victimhood, constantly learning, helping others, and turning to those seven ways to manage stress — as frequently as I can.
Sometimes I do surrender to chocolate. Sometimes I find Bette Davis on cable in the wee hours. Often, I throw on those walking shoes and head out the Door, even if I’m beat.
Can Love Reduce Stress?
Beyond the tips already mentioned, what else — more readily achieved — encourages us to unwind?
Love may not conquer all, but love of many sorts can ease stress — at least temporarily. Naturally, a caring and supportive partner can help.
Great sex? Great stress reducer!
Pursuing a passion, likewise.
For me, that passion is writing. For you, it may be yoga or woodworking or painting on the weekend. Maybe it’s reading or photography or blogging. Maybe it’s volunteering to work with seniors or children. Whatever it is, give it to yourself as often as you can.
At the very least — if at all possible — step outside, feel your feet on the ground, look up at the sky, and take a deep breath. Now take another.
As I ponder this topic, especially staring at papers and files (tax season, remember?), and fighting to find my good spirits in the wake of recent tumultuous world news, I try to focus on what is good in my life, and happily, that includes my sneakers at the ready.
*Many community centers and churches offer very affordable exercise classes and fitness facilities to the public. Be sure to check with your physician before beginning any exercise program.
**Even if money is a constraint, seek professional help if you need it. Some providers will offer reduced rates or payment options that you can afford. It’s always worth asking.
***If you are in pain, managing injuries or medical conditions, be sure to consult a physician before any DIY massage therapy. If you are not dealing with these issues, you may find some Youtube videos on therapeutic massage of use.
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