Stress is your body’s natural response to demand or pressure. While periodic stress
is normal and can be good for you—helping you to act quickly, overcome challenges, and boost your immunity—ongoing stress can lead to a number of health problems.
Unfortunately, being “stressed out” is a feeling that many Americans are all too familiar with. During the holiday season, it’s easy for the everyday stressors such as work, family obligations, and the poor economy to seem amplified.
Stressors are everywhere. Traffic con-gestion, arguing with your partner, losing your job, divorce, the death of a loved one, personal illness or injury, being a caregiver, and major life changes such as getting married, having a baby, or moving to a new city—all are common sources of stress.
When exposed to a stressor, your body releases a surge of hormones that causes your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to narrow, which, in turn, raises your blood pressure. Though temporary, stress-related spikes in blood pressure may be damaging to blood vessels if they occur too often and can lead to long-term high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
Every person has a different reaction to stress. Some people experience physical, mental, or emotional symptoms which may include headaches, fatigue, insomnia, stomach problems, anxiety, depression, irritability, crying spells, forgetfulness, poor concentration, low productivity, and confusion. Others may isolate themselves socially, feel lonely, lash out, have a lowered sex drive, or make less contact with friends. Negative habits that some use to handle stress, such as overeating, smoking, or alcohol or substance abuse, can also lead to obesity, addiction, and other serious health problems.
The way you cope with stressful events may be the key to avoiding long-term damage and improving your overall wellness. Try to identify the events or occurrences that make you feel stressed and who or what in your life they are related to (eg, family, friends, work, traffic). Take note of the physical and emotional changes—such as muscle tension, headache, or problems with decision making—that occur when you are under pressure, and use them to gauge your stress level. Plan healthy ways of dealing with stress—take a walk, breathe deeply, practice yoga or meditation, listen to music, or connect with a friend—and apply them when you start to feel stressed or anticipate a stressful situation.
If you feel overwhelmed by stress, your doctor can provide you with further information on counseling and stress management techniques.
For more information, go to www.apa.org/topics/stress/index.aspx.