By BitMED Provider: Allison Godchaux MD

As I tell my patients, stress isn’t a ‘thing’. It isn’t like having the ‘flu’ or having a headache, or having your back hurt. Stress isn’t ‘a thing’ it is a reaction to things that happen to us in our everyday world. It is how our body reacts to what it senses is a threat to our well-being.

 For example, think back to the caveman days. A bear is chasing you, and your body goes into the normal “stress” (fight or flight—in this case, flight) reaction. And you run. If you run fast enough, you escape from the bear, and your stress goes away. If you don’t run fast enough, stress is not your biggest problem! Not being the bear’s next meal, is!

To help your body run away from this ‘threat’, it does a number of things. Your body increases the amount of ‘stress’ hormones (adrenalin, noradrenaline and cortisol), to help you run away from the bear. An increase in these hormones causes the following things to occur in your body:

- Heart rate, and therefore, output of blood from the heart increases

 (in medical terms, cardiac output)

- Respiration (the amount you breathe) increases.

- Blood vessels dilate that go to your arms and legs, carrying more oxygenated blood to your muscles (very necessary, of course, for running as fast as you possibly can!)

- Sugar is released into the bloodstream by the liver (glycogen—you may have read about it) to give you the energy you need.

- The stomach produces more acid to digest whatever is in it, and empty itself. (ever try to run fast with a full stomach?)

- Muscles tense up, allowing them to function optimally.

As you successfully run away from the bear, your body reabsorbs the chemicals it had been putting out, and you, thankfully, having escaped, and return to a more normal physiological state.

But what if it isn’t the bear that is the problem, what if it is too many deadlines, or responsibilities, too many bills to pay, the daily drive in traffic, a sick child or parent, in a day that is already filled with other responsibilities….

The problem isn’t that there is a bear chasing us—either you outrun the bear—or you don’t, but, in either case, the stress is over pretty quickly, either way. The problem is when “the bear never stops chasing us,” that the “chronic” stress response becomes a greater problem than escaping the bear! That wasn’t how it was meant to be.

With long-term stress what we begin to see is: our blood pressure goes up and we have high blood pressure; our blood sugars go up, and we become diabetic; we have tension or migraine headaches from the constant muscle tension;  and stomach ulcers from all that acid we’re producing.  

The immune system can be affected as well (adrenalin suppresses the immune system), and you get sick more often. Stress affects our sleep, and if we aren’t getting enough sleep, it makes everything that we have to deal with in life, that much worse.

So, you are stressed, or have stress? The question is, what can we do about it? Do the following:

1. Exercise – regular exercise; intentional exercise. Walking at work is great, but that is your body’s new normal, though every little bit helps. Up the ante! Burn off those chemicals that your body accumulates while stressed. And, with exercise, your body puts out endorphins. Endorphins are those “feel good” chemicals that are released into your blood stream by your brain, and that you want to have!! They make you; well, feel better—and can help decrease stress!

2. Yoga – it can help relax you, and you will learn deep breathing exercises, which can be used daily. It also puts out another feel-good chemical, serotonin, which helps lower cortisol, one of those chemicals that increase when stressed.

3. Eat a well balanced diet, if you need help with this, let us know. You have to give the body the fuel it needs to manage the stresses in your life!

4. Herbal supplements and teas are always a good ‘go to’. Both Chamomile and Lemon Grass tea have demonstrated benefit, but can cause drowsiness. Try making a cup of tea your daily activity. No multi-tasking but drinking a relaxing cup of tea. Enjoy the stress relief from the affects of the tea, and for taking a moment of time for yourself.

5. Make time for sleep. It is important!

6. Consider seeing a therapist. If you feel you need a medicine to help manage your stress and anxiety, you may be right! But, don’t forget the counseling to go along with it. I much prefer that my patients learn how to deal with the stress and anxiety in life, than to have to take medications, with their potential side effects.  

7. Take medications, if you have to. Think about what your future holds, in the area of stress. The problems in our lives will never go away. We will always have them. Do you want to commit yourself to a lifetime of dependency on medication to deal with these stressors? Or would you prefer to learn how to manage those stressors? If you feel the need to take prescription medicine in the short term, don’t forget that therapy can help you learn how to manage the stress for the long term!