Articles for Our Patients ~ Kathy Yeatman-Stock, L.C.S.W.


Stress - What's that?

Author: Kathy Yeatman-Stock, L.C.S.W. • Language: ENG

Stress is that feeling or experience you have when you are confronted by a situation that you perceive is more than you can cope with or manage. You may feel threatened by the situation and believe you do not have the resources to deal with the threat. This perceived threat may trigger physical and emotional reactions. How much stress you feel depends on how much damage you think the situation you are facing can do.
 
Stress can present with varying degrees of intensity. It can be an obvious threat to you such as encountering a cougar during your morning run or it can be more subtle like dealing with deadlines at work, conflicts at home, or navigating your way around the computer. It is expected that when faced with an obvious threat, there would be a more intense reaction than when dealing with the common problems of daily life. When encountering a life threatening situation, you may react with a “fight-or-flight” response. You may also experience this “fight-or-flight” response when faced with something unexpected or unfamiliar. This unexpected event does not have to be a “crisis” and can occur when feeling frustrated, irritated, or helpless to a situation. This sense of having no power or control can present itself when dealing with every day life. Sometimes, the intensity level of every day life can be so low that you are unaware it is there and you may ignore the body’s signs of distress.
 
When you experience this “fight-or-flight” response, the brain sends messages to release hormones to help deal with the threat. It is like having an alarm system in your brain that alerts your adrenal glands to send out stress hormones into your bloodstream. These hormones include cortisol and adrenaline which causes you to experience physical changes such as an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and muscle tension.The body is preparing to fight or run and is in survival mode.

Stress and Your Health
Once the initial stress producing event is over does your stress go away? Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for you to continue with feeling overwhelmed or having no sense of control after encountering a stressful event. The cougar that you encountered on your morning run may have disappeared or was captured but your reactions and thoughts continue.
You may fear a reoccurrence and give up running. You may have negative thoughts and assumptions that are distorted and not evidence based. These emotions, thoughts, and assumptions create feelings of stress and if not addressed can become chronic.
 
How does chronic stress impact the body? There can be problems related to your cardiovascular system, your immune system, your nervous system, and your digestive system. High levels of cortisol can raise your heart rate and blood pressure which causes more risk for a heart attack or a stroke. Chronic stress tends to weaken your immune system and you are more vulnerable to infections, colds, and illnesses circulating within your family or community. When stress hormones are produced and never stop, the nervous system can present with a constant feeling of helplessness and anxiety. Lastly, the bowels and digestive system can be affected and manifested by an upset stomach, diarrhea, or constipation. This happens because the stress hormones stimulate the colon.
 
Are there other effects of stress? Stress has also been associated with behavioral changes and mental health problems such as anxiety and/or depression. When feeling pressure or stress, some people are more likely to drink or smoke as a way of self medicating to get immediate relief from the stress. Others may deal with their stress by altering their eating patterns, sleep patterns, and social interactions. They may overeat, skip meals, sleep all day or cut down on sleep due to worry. They may isolate and stop seeing their friends or support system. All of these are likely to cause harm to their health and their emotional well being.

Coping Strategies
Become aware of your stressors and how you are responding emotionally and physically. Notice your distress and don’t ignore it. Often times the body responds to stress and sends you the warning sign that you are in distress. Identify behaviors or events that trigger your stress.
 
Recognize what you can change. Focus on what is in your control and what you know about the situation verses what is out of your control and is unknown.
 
Reduce the emotional reaction to the stress. The stress reaction is exaggerated or at times triggered by your perception of the threat. Pay attention to your negative thinking and distortions. Talk with others in your support system to get feedback or attend a support group meeting. This will help put the situation into perspective.
 
Practice relaxation skills to help deal with the physical reactions. Slow, deep breathing exercises can bring your heart rate and respiration down. This will also impact muscle tension. Guided imagery, massages, meditation, and yoga are other activities you can utilize to calm and relax the body. Medications, when prescribed by your physician, may also help but they alone are not the answer and work best in conjunction with a relaxation skill.
 
Build your physical reserves. Exercise can build your cardiovascular fitness and release chemicals called endorphins into your bloodstream.These can give a positive feeling and impact your overall well being.
Eat well balanced and nutritious meals. Avoid nicotine and excessive caffeine. Get enough rest and keep a consistent sleep schedule.
 
Maintain your emotional reserves. Stay connected to friends and family, reach out to your support system when in need. Establish realistic goals for yourself and pursue what is meaningful to you. Expect that there will be good days and bad days. Accept that life and you are not perfect. Take a break from stress and schedule some fun and joy in your day. This may be having alone time to read a good book or visiting with a long time friend.

Taking Responsibility
Take responsibility for your emotional and physical health. Be aware of how your mind, your body, and your spirit are impacted. If stress is taking a toll on your life, try some of the coping strategies listed above. Practice taking one step at a time and one day at a time. Stay connected with others and reach out to community resources such as the Cancer Care Center’s wellness groups and support groups.
 
If you are interested in learning more about the supportive services available at the Cancer Care Center, feel free to call me at 909/865-9958 or email me at kathy.yeatman-stock@pvhmc.org.
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