Doctors don’t know all of the ways that stress and illness are connected, but they do know that the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord) and the immune system can inﬂuence one another during stress. Short-term positive stress can be invigorating, stimulating us to respond positively to meaningful challenges and opportunities. Short-term negative stress can be life-saving, caus- ing us to ﬂee dangerous situations. The brain releases hormones into the blood-
stream, causing the heart to beat faster, the face to ﬂush, and the arm and leg muscles to tighten, allowing the person to run away or escape. Once the danger is over, the body repairs damaged areas and returns to its prestressed state.
In long-term stress, the hormones continue to be released but the body does not have time to make repairs or to rest and recuperate. This is the type of stress that creates health problems. Under constant stress, a person becomes so condi- tioned to expect potential problems that his or her body tightens and remains in that state until the stress stops. Under this long-term stress state, the body can develop stress-related problems.
Many connections between stress and chronic conditions are known. Stress increases blood levels of adrenaline and cortisol, two so-called stress hormones. Cortisol can suppress the immune system, making people more susceptible to infectious diseases such as colds and ﬂu. The effects of stress on the circulatory system (a quicker pulse, narrowed blood vessels, and thickened blood) can make people more susceptible to heart rhythm irregularities, angina (chest pain), high blood pressure, and stroke.
Muscles tighten as stress starts, often causing intense headaches, backaches, and gastrointestinal problems. Stress also can cause testosterone levels to decrease and blood vessels in the penis to constrict, often resulting in erection problems. The rush of hormones caused by a stressful situation can bring on an asthma attack in a person with a history of asthma. Stress also draws the blood supply away from the abdominal area and encourages overproduction of acids in the digestive system, often leading to indigestion and other gastrointestinal prob- lems. Other problems related to stress include insomnia and irritability.
The number of hours worked does not seem to cause as much stress as do two other occupational factors: lack of control and inadequate social support. Men who have little control over the demands of their jobs feel more stress than those who have more control. Men who also experience a low level of social support from coworkers have even more problems.
What is stressful to one person may be relaxing to another. Some people, for example, like to keep busy all the time, while others need to take frequent breaks. Some people can keep track of multiple tasks, while others prefer to do tasks in sequence. If you are under stress, it is important to recognize it and deal with it in a positive way. Here are some tips to help you relieve stress:
• Exercise regularly. You can decrease stress and release tension through regu- lar exercise or other physical activity. Running, walking, swimming, dancing, playing tennis, or working in your garden are some activities you may want to try.
• Talk about your stress. For example, talk to a friend, family member, teacher, or boss about what is bothering you. If that does not help to resolve the prob- lem, consider seeking help from a professional therapist or counselor. Ask your doctor for a referral, or contact the employee assistance program at work.
• Know your limits. If a stressful situation gets beyond control, walk away.
Return to deal with the situation when you have calmed down.
• Take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest and eat a healthy diet. If you feel irri- table and tense from lack of sleep or if you are not eating properly, you will be less able to deal with stressful situations.
• Take time for yourself. Take a break from regular work and do something you enjoy. Just relax.
• Be a participant in life. Help yourself by helping others. Share your abilities with other members of your community by volunteering.
• Prioritize your tasks. To keep your schedule from overwhelming you, make a list of your tasks and check them off as you complete them.
• Be cooperative. If things do not go your way, try compromise rather than con- frontation. A little give and take on both sides can help you meet your goals and make everyone feel better.
• Cry if you need to. Crying can be a healthy way to bring relief to your tension or anxiety.
• Create a quiet scene in your mind. You can’t always get away, but you can try closing your eyes and letting your mind wander. A quiet country scene painted mentally can temporarily take you out of the turmoil of a stressful situation and help you to relax. Listen- ing to beautiful music or reading a good book may help you achieve the same results.
• Avoid self-medication. When you need them, you can use prescription or over-the-counter medications to relieve stress temporarily, but realize that they don’t remove the conditions that caused the stress in the ﬁrst place. Becoming overly reliant on drugs or alco- hol can only complicate matters in the long run. They may be habit forming, or they may interfere with your body’s ability to function normally.
• Learn to relax by using a speciﬁc relaxation strategy, such as meditation or deep-breathing exercises. Par- ticipate in activities you can enjoy without competing. Cycle, swim, or walk the dog. Forget about always winning.
Reducing Stress by Relaxing
Learn to make yourself relax.A state of relaxation can counteract the potentially harmful effects of being under stress.When you are relaxed, your breathing and heart rate slow, your need for oxygen decreases, and the electrical activity of your brain goes into a resting pattern.Try to ﬁnd at least 10 to 20 minutes
in each day to relax.
Relaxation can stimulate the release of endorphins— brain chemicals that promote feelings of well-being. Relaxation strategies work by blocking conscious thoughts, resulting in decreased tension, lower heart and breathing rates, and slower metabolism. Several relaxation techniques, such as meditation, guided imagery, muscle relaxation, and deep breathing, can be used to relieve stress and bring on the relaxation response.
If you feel that you are under severe or long-term stress, seek help immedi- ately. Talk about your problems with your doctor. He or she can treat any stress- related disorders you may have developed and will refer you to the appropriate mental health professional.