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Health Watch/Becky D’Agostino, RN, MSN, director of nursing

Be aware of your stress levels

April 26, 2012
The Daily Mining Gazette

April is Stress Awareness Month. "Who needs an awareness month for stress? I am always stressed," you think. Awareness months are great times to pause and really think about your health and what you could do differently to improve it. So let's look at stress.

Stress is a normal reaction of our bodies to changes in our lives. Our body's "flight-or-fight reaction" provides us with a surge of energy to either run from or confront danger. Through a combination of signals from our nerves and hormones, substances are released that increase our heart rate, elevate our blood pressure and boost our energy. Sugar is released to provide our brains with more energy. Our bodies also slow down activities considered nonessential in a fight-or-flight situation. The immune response (our bodies' ability to fight infection), digestion and growth are examples. Once a perceived stress is past, our body systems relax blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension return to normal.

Our body's stress response is meant to protect us, but when the stressors of our lives are always present, leaving us constantly feeling stressed, tense, nervous or on edge, the flight-or-fight reaction stays turned on. This never-ending stress can lead to a variety of health problems including: heart disease, depression, obesity, high blood pressure, acne and other skin problems, upset stomach and frequent minor illnesses such as colds.

Some common signs of too much stress are: not eating or eating too much, feeling like you have no control, needing to have too much control, forgetfulness, headaches, lack of energy, trouble getting things done, trouble sleeping, drinking and/or smoking too much and general aches and pains. You may also feel nervous, fearful, confused, worried, irritable, hostile and unable to concentrate.

"I have all those symptoms," you think, "so now what can I do?" The first thing to do to control stress is to figure out what is causing your stress. What situations produce these changes in your body, feelings, and behaviors? Are you feeling overwhelmed at work or home, uncertain about the future, concerned about your job, family, or other changes in your life? List the things that cause you stress.

Next, examine your list for the types of stressors. They can be accidental hassles, major life changes and ongoing problems. Accidental hassles are temporary but can cause significant stress, especially when going through major life changes or if you have ongoing problems - these are things like losing your car keys. Major life changes can be positive, like getting married or negative, such as losing a job or divorce. Ongoing problems may include financial trouble, poor relationships or illness.

Once you have your list, figure out which ones you have some control over and which ones you don't. Avoid controllable stressors. Learn to say no to some tasks. It is easier to refuse to do something than to get caught in the middle of something you cannot accomplish. Plan major life changes by prioritizing and doing one task at a time, sharing your thoughts with a spouse, parent or friend.

In many situations, you can't avoid stress, however, you can manage it. When you find your heart rate elevating, palms sweating, and nerves kicking in, try one of the following:

Exercise - even a short walk can help you manage stress and regular exercise is one of the most effective ways of preventing and managing stress.

Laugh and smile - when you start to laugh, it lightens your mental load and can actually causes positive physical changes in your body.

Think positively - when faced with a difficult situation ask yourself, "What does this mean in the grand scheme of things?" "Looking back a year from now, how would I view this situation?"

Relax with deep breathing, stretching, massage or music.

Sleep - If you have trouble sleeping, make sure you have a quiet, relaxing bedtime routine and stick to a consistent schedule.

Finally, ask for help or find professional help if needed. Stress is a part of all our lives. We may not be able to change our current situation. But we can take steps to manage the effect they have on us. The benefit of managing stress is peace of mind and perhaps a longer healthier life.

Editor's note: Becky D'Agostino, RN, MSN, is director of nursing at Baraga County Memorial Hospital.



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