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We no longer have to fight off an attack by a saber-toothed tiger. Instead it’s the argument with the spouse, the traffic jam on the highway or the impossible work deadline that causes an inner alarm to go off. Our hearts race, the stomach churns and adrenaline surges. Suddenly we’re ready for battle. This process is commonly known as the flight or flight response.
Over time, stress can leave us emotionally, physically and mentally drained. “Some 75 to 90 percent of all doctor visits can be associated with stress-related ailments,” says Jamile Ashmore, PhD, clinical director of the Behavioral Health Center at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center - Plano.
The symptoms might be mild at first: frequent headaches, colds, back pain or indigestion. But constant stress can pave the way for more serious health problems, Dr. Ashmore says. It can make us more susceptible to serious disease and can even slow our recovery from an existing illness. That’s because chronic stress leads to an out-of-balance biochemistry.
Here’s what happens. When faced with a stressor, the brain activates several body systems each resulting in a cascade of neurochemicals. The myriad of neurochemicals regulate immune response and influences everything from mineral balance to how much insulin the body produces, says the doctor.
These stressed induced physical changes can affect your memory and ability to think clearly. It also can wreak havoc on the immune system, elevate blood pressure, inflict damage on the heart and blood vessels, and increase risk of heart attack and stroke. But that’s not all. Dr. Ashmore says that stress is associated with:
“When we’re under stress, we may make unhealthy lifestyle choices and not get enough sleep or exercise, and our diet might be poor,” Dr. Ashmore says. “That can make us more likely to become ill.” What can you do to make sure that doesn’t happen? He suggests that we not only get plenty of sleep, eat healthy foods and establish an exercise routine, but also:
Reducing stress also may depend on a number of emotional factors, Dr. Ashmore says. He encourages patients to maintain a supportive network of family and friends, to say no to requests that aren’t in line with personal priorities and to get organized, including taking time to declutter the house. He suggests stress relievers such as deep breathing, meditation, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, self-imagery or listening to music.
Another powerful stress management tool, according to the nonprofit organization Mental Health America, is to list the things that cause stress in your life and then learn how to accept or change them. For example, be realistic in what you can accomplish and tackle one task at a time. Practice compromising if you have continual opposition in your work or personal life. And go easy with criticism—try not to be frustrated, let down or disappointed when someone does not measure up, including yourself. In other words, it’s often helpful to lower your expectations of others and yourself.
Sometimes, talking with a health care professional might be required to get a handle on stress. To schedule an appointment at the Behavioral Health Center at Baylor Scott & White - Plano, call 469.814.4850.
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