Medical Corner: De-Stress

By: Ashmar Mandou

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - HealthStress does not have to ruin your life or your health. Constant stress, which comes in many forms, such as daily traffic, unhappy marriage, or heavy workload, can have real physical effects on the body. It has been linked to a wide range of health issues, including mood, sleep disorder, and heart disease. This month in Medical Corner we focus our efforts on the best practices to handle stress and live a healthier lifestyle.

Suzanne M. Snyder, LCSW, Director of Behavioral Health, Access Community Health Network

Lawndale Bilingual News: It may sound simple, but how can people get into the habit of noticing their stress levels and/or the triggers?
Suzanne M. Snyder: Stress is a natural physical and mental response that allows humans to survive and thrive. It’s the warning system that produces our “fight or flight” response when our brains perceive danger. It gives us the energy and focus to meet daily challenges. However, if our bodies stay in a continuous state of stress with no relaxation back to a state of calm, it becomes progressively detrimental to our physical, mental and emotional health. Stress affects people differently and what stresses one person negatively may not stress another. We need to learn to take time to monitor our stress levels throughout our day to avoid living in a negative, chronic stressful state.
Mindfulness practices are one way to learn to monitor and reduce stress in your daily life. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to your physical, mental and emotional self in any given moment or situation, naming what is going on, and connecting the mind, the emotion and the physical together with acceptance. This allows you to be more in tune with yourself and less externally triggered, giving yourself space and permission to recalibrate your internal messaging and responses to the external. Mindfulness practices not only help reduce stress in the moment, but also build mental and emotional resiliency in our daily lives. With today’s technology, there are many apps and online resources available that teach mindfulness techniques. If you need more support, Access Community Health Network (ACCESS) has a team of behavioral health consultants who work closely with your PCP to assist you with mindfulness and relaxation practices.

What happens to our body and mind when we are under stress?
Common effects of stress on the body are headaches, muscle tension, increased heart rate and blood pressure, chest pain, fatigue, change in sex drive, digestive upset, and problems sleeping. Also common are restlessness, anxiety, lack of focus or motivation, feeling overwhelmed, irritability, or depression. Unfortunately, some ways we tend to cope with stress that are not helpful including unhealthy eating, drug or alcohol abuse, tobacco use, social withdrawal, angry outbursts, or less physical activity.

Can the body differentiate between good types of stress and bad?
Stress is the body’s natural response to a perceived threat or change in our current situation. When the stress response is triggered in situations where it is not needed or is continuous, it becomes harmful to our health. What may seem like a positive brief stressor to one person and met with excitement, may be dreadful for another. A great example are the experiences of passengers waiting for a roller coaster ride. The difference between passengers’ experiences depend on many factors such as perceptions of danger and control, expectations of what is to come, past experiences and even current health. This is why it is so important that we learn to be mindful of our responses to triggers, or stressors, throughout our day.

How can someone manage their stress so that all dimensions of their life is addressed; for example the physical, mental and emotional?
Mindfulness, relaxation techniques, good sleep hygiene, positive socialization, helping others, exercise, balanced diet, engaging in activities that bring you joy and purpose, and regular spiritual practices are all important activities for a balanced life and will help you manage daily stress.

What can occur in someone’s health in the long run if stress levels increase?
Chronic stress can lead to many chronic conditions such as hypertension, digestive disorders, chronic insomnia, generalized anxiety, major depression and a lowered immune system. If you’re not sure if stress is causing you health problems, or if you’ve taken steps to control your stress level and negative symptoms continue, see your primary care provider for a check-up. Your primary care provider may also connect you with a behavioral health professional to help you identify sources of stress and to learn new coping tools.

What activity do you implement into your daily life to lower stress levels? 
I get eight hours of sleep a night and walk at least 10,000 steps a day. I work at the mindfulness practice of inviting and releasing challenges into my attention as they come throughout the day. I make sure to have time alone daily and time to socialize. I regularly get outside for some fresh air, walking in city parks or along the river or lakefront.

Dr. Julie Daftari, Chief Medical Officer, UnitedHealthcare of Illinois

Lawndale Bilingual Newspaper: It may sound simple, but how can people get into the habit of noticing their stress levels and/or the triggers?
Dr. Julie Daftari: Physical or emotional tensions are often signs of stress. They can be reactions to a situation that cause you to feel threatened or anxious. Stress can be related to positive events (such as planning your wedding or a child’s graduation) or negative events (such as dealing with the effects of a natural disaster). Common reactions to a stressful event can include:
• Disbelief, shock, and numbness
• Feeling sad, frustrated, and helpless
• Fear and anxiety about the future
• Feeling guilty
• Anger, tension, and irritability
• Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
• Crying
• Reduced interest in usual activities
• Wanting to be alone
• Loss of appetite
• Sleeping too much or too little
• Nightmares or bad memories
• Reoccurring thoughts of the event
• Headaches, back pains, and stomach problems
• Increased heart rate, difficulty breathing
• Smoking or use of alcohol or drugs

What happens to our body and mind when we are under stress?
Your signs of stress may be different from someone else’s. Some people get angry. Others have trouble concentrating or making decisions, and still others will develop health problems. The good news is that stress can be managed.

Can the body differentiate between the good types of stress from the bad?
Stress is a physical and psychological response to a demand, threat or problem. It stimulates and increases your level of awareness, also known as the “fight or flight” response. The response occurs whether the stress is positive or negative. Positive stress provides the means to express talents and abilities. But continued exposure to negative stress may lower the body’s ability to cope, which may lead to prolonged health issues.

How can someone manage their stress so that all dimensions of their life is addressed, for example the physical, mental, and emotional?
First, take care of yourself. Eat healthier, engage in moderate exercise and get enough sleep – all of which can improve your health. Second, figure out the source. Monitor your mental state throughout the day. Keep a list of the things that create stress. Then develop a plan for dealing with these common stressors.

What can occur in someone’s health in the long run if stress levels increase?
First, we must understand that stress is here to stay. A modest amount of stress, offset by periods of relative calm and security, is normal. But high levels of stress can be dangerous to your health, leading to headaches, back pain, fatigue, upset stomach, anxiety, depression and heart problems.

What activity do you implement into your daily life to lower stress levels?
Do things you enjoy. Go to a movie, meet a friend for dinner or participate in an activity that provides relief. Give yourself a break and take time to care about yourself. Learn relaxation techniques. Deep breathing is helpful. Meditation as well as “mindfulness techniques” are becoming increasingly popular at home and in the workplace. You can practice mindfulness while sitting in a quiet place or walking. The key is to focus on your breathing or your steps. The technique may be simple, but achieving the desired result takes practice. Welcome support. Let close friends or relatives know you’re dealing with stress. They may be able to offer help or support that may make a difference.

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