Managing stress important to good health

Many people think of stress as another word for tension or pressure. Actually, stress is the way each of us responds to change. Understanding stress can help you use it to your advantage and potentially turn “stressors” into positive energy.

Our body responds to stress in many ways. Acute (sudden or short-term) stress leads to rapid changes throughout the body. Almost all the body’s systems (heart and blood vessels, immune system, lungs, digestive system, sensory organs and brain) gear up to meet perceived danger. Hormones, such as adrenaline, surge. Heart beat and pulse rate increase. Blood sugar rises. These effects helped prehistoric humans survive by enabling them to run faster or fight harder, which is why we often call this reaction to stress the “fight or flight” response.

Over time, however, repeated stressful situations put a strain on the body that may contribute to physical and psychological problems. Chronic (long-term) stress can have serious consequences and should be addressed like any other health concern.

Stressors are things or events, such as traffic congestion, divorce or a difficult job, that cause stress. We often experience tense muscles, headaches or stomach pains during, before and after these situations. But stressors can also be positive experiences. Having a baby, bowling a perfect 300 game, or completing a satisfying project are changes that can activate our stress response.

The body cannot tell the difference between a positive or negative stressor. In either case, it experiences the same stress effects. If we are not able to let off steam and relax, then these effects can be harmful. We may feel tired, depressed or anxious. We may experience physical symptoms such as a clenched jaw or backache.

A 2010 survey by the American Psychological Association found that Americans were experiencing more stress than five years earlier and engaging in unhealthy habits due to stress. During periods of stress, take care of yourself by getting plenty of rest, eating healthily, exercising and relaxing (without alcohol or drugs). Doing so will help your body recover from all stress, even when you feel satisfied or excited.

Stress is like body temperature: If it’s too low or too high, you cannot survive. But the right balance can keep you going strong. Talk with your primary care physician or other professional health care provider about stress in your life and how to achieve the necessary balance.

 Neena Chawla, MD, specializes in internal medicine at the Gig Harbor Medical Clinic, which is part of the Franciscan Medical Group.