Is Stress Hazardous to your Health?

By Walter E. Jacobson, MD

Dr. Jacobson Answers a Reader’s Email Question?

“What are symptoms of stress, how can it affect your health and what’s the best way to manage it?”

Common symptoms of stress, particularly prolonged stress, are depression, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, anger, reactivity, impulsivity. Stress can affect appetite, energy levels, motivation. It can alter one’s perceptions, one’s thoughts, one’s insight and judgment. People who are stressed out just don’t think as clearly, they’re out of balance, disconnected from their higher, intuitive self. More vulnerable to a variety of illnesses, physical as well as emotional.

Stress, in general, weakens the immune system, diminishes the body’s ability to fend off illness and infection, to repair and to heal. Prolonged stress, with its dampening of the immune system, can generate headaches, muscle aches, neck and back aches, constipation, diarrhea, gastro-esophogeal reflux, ulcers, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. Stress WILL be hazardous to your health.

Stress increases one’s odds of having an accident, because stressed-out people are more easily distracted, not paying attention as best they can, such that an accident happens which otherwise might have been avoided.

If one does suffer bodily injuring secondary to an accident, one who is stressed has diminished capacity to heal and recover from it. When one’s mind and body are in good condition, the odds of recovering from a serious injury are much greater.

Last but not least, it is possible that prolonged stress weakens the immune system to just a degree that one becomes more vulnerable to tumors and cancers.

So what can be done about it? Ideally, find ways to reduce the stress and eliminate it, if possible. Reducing the stress means recognizing what’s causing the stress, whether it is an exhausting job, financial insecurity, health problems, or relationship problems. Whatever might be causing the stress needs to be acknowledged and enumerated.

The next step involves addressing these specific causes of stress in one’s life, perhaps making new decisions, perhaps taking new actions if there are indeed viable options. Make better choices and it’s possible to reduce, if not eliminate, the stressful triggers in one’s life.

Sometimes one can’t reduce or eliminate the stress. Some things are out of our control no matter what choices and decisions we make. In this case, reducing stress means reducing your reaction to stress. Finding ways to accept the difficult situation and co-exist with it, rather than having a physical or nervous breakdown.

In conjunction with trying to “change the things you can” and “accept the things you cannot change,” there are other ways to manage and cope with stress. Good nutrition is important. Eating balanced meals. Staying as far away from fast food and junk food as possible. Keeping the sugar and fat choices to a minimum. Exercising and working out can help dramatically. Meditation. Yoga. Talk therapy. Spiritual / Religious counseling. Vitamin and mineral supplements may help. Sometimes medications can help people deal with their stress. Sometimes medications are necessary, hopefully for just a brief period of time.

When people are stressed, they should avoid watching intense TV shows and movies. They should stay away from the horror, gore and violence. Watch comedies as much as possible. Laughter is healing. It does generate endorphins. Additionally, stay away from too much news. We all want to be informed. But past that, indulging in excessive viewing of the same information, the same message over and over again, is not helpful, particularly if you’re watching news about horrific things happening and yet to come.

When one is under stress, it’s best to try to “think lovely thoughts.” Think positive. Think hopeful, not pessimistic. See the glass as half-full, not half-empty. Make the decision to make lemonade out of lemons. Don’t add too much sugar. Be grateful for what you’ve got, despite whatever scarcity, limitation, lack or disappointment is in your life.

Try to see the silver lining in the dark clouds. Try to see the difficulties in your life as somehow blessings in disguise. Try to release judgment and attack thoughts despite what has happened to you. Try to forgive.

In stressful times, people and societies can lose their balance, their sense of purpose and intention. This is why, over the long run, it is critical, amidst the stress, fear and chaos, that we maintain as best we can our integrity, our compassion and our humanity.

Walter E. Jacobson, MD is a Board Certified Psychiatrist who has been in private practice in the Los Angeles area since 1999. Dr. Jacobson specializes in insight oriented psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, marriage counseling, medication management and spiritual psychotherapy. He was Editor of the The Southern California Psychiatrist, the monthly newsletter of the Southern California Psychiatric Society for two years and has written dozens of articles about psychiatry and mental health. Dr. Jacobson currently teaches The Art of Forgiveness as part of the Northridge Hospital Integrative Medicine program, and he is also Chairman of the Northridge Hospital Physician Well-Being Committee. Dr. Jacobson is a member of the National Association of Medical Communicators.

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