We all experience stress daily. The human body was made to deal with this stress. Stress can be a positive force, such as helping us deal with immediate danger, or giving you that burst of adrenaline to sharpen your skills during a competition. Stress becomes negative when we are bombarded with continuous challenges without a chance for recovery or relief. If we don’t deal with these stressors appropriately, this stress response can cause or worsen health problems.
Human Responses to Stress
In response to a stressor, our bodies release powerful neurochemicals and hormones that prepare us to take action. For instance, imagine the following hypothetical scenario. You are groggily walking to your barn at sunrise to feed your horses. A thousand pound black bear suddenly appears. Your heart rate and blood pressure immediately rise, so that blood flow is redirected to the heart, muscles and brain and away from the gastrointestinal tract and skin. This prepares you to take action and will decrease blood loss in case of an injury. Your breathing will become faster, allowing the lungs to take in more oxygen. Red and white blood cells are secreted into the blood stream to transport more oxygen throughout the body. Your immune system is activated, preparing the body for an assault. Glucose and fatty acids are released to help fuel your “fight or flight” response. The nervous system is signaled to increase alertness, reduce pain perception and allow you to focus on the task at hand. Thankfully, the bear was just as scared of you as you were of him and ran away. The stress hormones signal the body that you are safe. The body systems then return to normal, which is called the relaxation response.
Stress becomes detrimental to our health when a person faces continuous stressors without relief. We are faced with stressors daily including financial worries, deadlines at work, traffic and juggling work, family and our horses. Our body, unfortunately, cannot differentiate these from the impending attack of a bear, so signals are sent to prepare us for an attack. Some of the physical symptoms of prolonged stress include a rise in blood pressure, insomnia, headache or upset stomach. Stress can cause an initial rise in our immunity but prolonged stress causes a weakened immune system. Stress can affect your mood, causing increased anxiety, impatience, frustration, irritability, problems focusing and depression. Overeating, increased tobacco, drug and alcohol use can be symptoms of stress. It is estimated that over three-fourths of all medical clinic visits are for stress-related illnesses and symptoms. Stress can cause worsening of diabetes, rashes, asthma, arthritis, heart disease, high blood pressure and other chronic illnesses.
What can we do? What causes stress for you may not cause stress for someone else. Recognizing your stressors is the first step to managing your stressors. Our stress is determined by external and internal factors. External factors include your physical environment, your home, your job, your relationship with others and all the expectations, challenges and difficulties that you are confronted with on a daily basis. Internal factors are your body’s ability to cope with these external stress factors. Your body’s ability to handle stress is determined by your overall heath, nutritional status, emotional well-being, fitness level and the amount of sleep you get.
Optimize your ability to manage stress by taking care of yourself. Getting enough rest and eating healthy will prepare your body to take on the challenges of the day. Consuming brightly colored vegetables and fruits, lean meat, healthy unsaturated fats and whole grains can armor our body against stress. An important step in managing stress is exercise. Studies have shown that regular exercise decreases the stress-related hormones and neurotransmitters. It helps us avoid the damage prolonged stress causes our body. Exercise has been found to have potent antidepressant and anti-anxiety properties, as well as aids in sleep (do not exercise within three hours of bedtime). Meditation in 20-30 minutes sessions has been shown to decrease the effects of stress and lower blood pressure. Be aware of your coping mechanisms. Increasing alcohol consumption, smoking more or abusing pain medications and other drugs can actually increase the stress response. Only drink alcohol in moderation.
Managing stress begins with taking charge of your life. You can be in control of your thoughts, emotions, your schedule and how you respond to stress.
1. Take control of your thoughts. We can’t change some stressors, but we can change how we respond to them. When you find yourself worrying about things you cannot change—stop those thoughts. Find the positive in situations, and don’t dwell on the negative.
2. Take control of your schedule. Manage your time effectively. Prioritize what is important. Try to create predictability in your work and home life. Routine and structure decrease our stress level. Plan ahead, and try to anticipate problems before they occur.
3. Take time to relax. Turn off cell phones for a short time. Take a walk during your lunch break at work. Take time to relax and don’t overbook your time and schedule.
4. Ask for help. People who have strong support systems manage stress better. If you feel you are suffering from a stress-related problem that you can’t deal with, there are stress management counselors available.
About Martha Smith
Martha Smith resides in Hazelhurst, Miss., a small community south of Jackson, and has been a member of the NBHA for 15 years, competing actively in Mississippi District 05. In 2006, she earned the Open 3D Mid-South National championship and has qualified for numerous NBHA World Shows. Smith now serves as Adjunct Faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi School of Nursing in the Family Nurse Practitioner program, teaching RN’s how to become Nurse Practitioners.