Tuesday, April 18, 2006

What to do about stress?

Stress is an unavoidable part of life. While some stress is normal and even necessary, too much of it can affect your quality of life and your health. You can reduce the effects of stress by identifying its causes in your life, understanding and accepting what you can control and what you can't, and learning stress management skills.

Stress affects each of us differently, and the most effective ways to relieve it are different for each person. You can try different methods to find out which ones work best for you. Some techniques for relieving stress include:

• Exercise. Regular physical activity is one of the most effective stress management techniques.

• Writing. Research shows that expressing yourself in writing can be a very effective way to reduce your stress level.

• Expressing your feelings. Talking, laughing, crying, and expressing anger are normal parts of the emotional healing process.

• Doing something, you enjoy. A hobby or other healthy leisure activity that is meaningful to you can help you relax. Volunteer work or work that helps others can be a powerful stress reliever.
• Body-centered relaxation. This includes breathing exercises, muscle relaxation exercises, massage, aromatherapy, yoga, and the traditional Chinese relaxation exercises tai chi and qi gong.

• Mindfulness activities. These include learning how to relax your body through self-hypnosis, meditation, imagery exercises, listening to relaxing music, and using humor to reduce stress.

In addition to relieving stress, it is also important to reduce the amount of stress in your life. Ways to reduce and avoid unnecessary stress include:

• Time management techniques. Scheduling and prioritizing your commitments can make you more productive and efficient.

• Effective coping strategies. Identifying ways of dealing with stress that don't really help and finding the best ways to cope can reduce your stress level.

• Healthy lifestyle choices. Balancing your obligations, getting plenty of rest, eating well, not smoking, and limiting how much alcohol you drink are all important in reducing stress.

• Support from friends and family. People who have a strong social support network are better able to handle life's challenges.

• Changing ways of thinking. Stopping thoughts that cause stress, working on problem solving, and learning to communicate well are all useful tools for reducing stress.

Stress can be overwhelming. While confiding in a friend or family member can be helpful, you may also want to see a professional counselor.

How do I evaluate my stress level?

Your stress level depends on your genetic (inherited) traits, how much support you get from family and friends, your attitude, your past experience with stress, and your ability to cope or bounce back. What is very stressful for one person may not be for another. Your level of stress in any situation depends on how you perceive it, and how long it lasts.

Some people have learned how to deal with stress better than others. If you have trouble recovering from stressful situations, you may need to learn better ways to cope.

Life changes such as the loss of a loved one, getting married, or workplace challenges can cause a lot of stress. To estimate your current stress level based on recent changes in your life, use this Interactive Tool: What Is Your Stress Level?

Tracking stressful events and noting your reactions and coping strategies in a stress journal is another way to discover what is causing you stress and how much stress you feel.

How does stress affect me?

Stress can have a serious impact on your health, especially if it is ongoing (chronic). It affects the heart and blood vessels, the nervous system, and the immune system.

Stress can cause moodiness, anxiety, and difficulty concentrating. It can make some health problems worse, such as coronary artery disease, diabetes, and asthma. Over time, stress can lead to depression, relationship problems, and poor performance at work or school.

When you are stressed, your body releases hormones that increase your heart rate and breathing and provide a burst of energy. Nearly all body systems, such as the heart and blood vessels, immune system, lungs, digestive system, and brain, prepare to cope with danger. This is known as the "fight-or-flight" stress response. This response ranges from barely noticeable to very intense, depending on the situation. When the stressful situation passes, your body returns to normal.

Some stress is normal and even necessary to keep life interesting and challenging. The stress response can be useful when intense focus or a quick reaction is needed. However, it can also interfere with your ability to do complex tasks and interact with other people. If you have too many stressful situations over a period of time, or an ongoing stressful situation, you may begin to feel miserable and have health problems. The good news is that you can learn ways to cope with stress and to reduce the amount of stress in your life.

Author: Stuart J. Bryson
Medical Review: Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Paul J. Rosch, MD


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