What You Can Do to Manage Stress

Stress is as old as humans. Its purpose is to promote survival and originally helped early humans survive any number of threats. During times of acute stress, the body undergoes what is often referred to as a fight-or-flight response. A signal from the brain activates the adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys. Adrenal glands then release the hormones cortisol and adrenaline (also known as epinephrine). These hormones increase heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, focus and release stores of glucose into the bloodstream for increased energy. These hormones will also dampen other bodily functions that are less important such an immediate threat, including the immune and digestive systems. Once the threat is gone, the body returns to its normal state.

A common problem we often see in family medicine is chronic stress. The body is in a continual fight-or-flight mode, and this can lead to long-term health consequences. Long-term exposure to high levels of cortisol can lead to obesity, chronic hypertension, digestive issues, mental health issues and an impaired immune system. It can even lead to menstrual irregularities in women, reproductive issues in men and sexual dysfunction. 

Anxiety and stress share similar symptoms. Anxiety may be triggered by stress. While stress is a response to a specific trigger, anxiety is prolonged and sustained. If the body is in a continued “fight or flight response,” it will begin to suffer from the effects of long-term exposure to high levels of cortisol. 

Stress management is an important, and popular, topic. Fortunately, there are many resources for reducing stress and improving daily functioning. Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress. Exercise actually decreases the levels of stress hormones and increases the body’s natural endorphins. Other helpful methods for reducing stress include meditation and breathing techniques. I personally enjoy a variety of exercises to relieve stress, including Yin yoga, meditation, breathing exercises and regular hikes to commune with nature. This brings me inner peace and helps to reduce my stress. 

Good sleep hygiene is also very important for reducing stress, along with providing many other health benefits. Avoiding caffeine and large meals right before bedtime and discontinuing use of cell phones, laptops and television before getting into bed helps to improve your sleep hygiene. Trained mental health professionals can be helpful, particularly with tailoring stress reduction methods to your lifestyle.   

Stress does not always have to be dealt with on your own. When stress begins to interfere with your job or home life, or is causing significant distress in general, it is time to seek help from a medical professional. It is also important to seek help if you are using drugs or alcohol to cope with stress, or feel that you are in danger of harming yourself or someone else. 

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