Coping with Stress Can Improve Your Physical Health, Too

Daniel’s Story
Daniel just left a two-jour meeting at work in which his colleague, Jerome, stole the credit for his big idea. Daniel and Jerome had worked together for two weeks on the project, but Daniel came up with the idea and the strategy, and he did most of the work. As the meeting came to a close and the executives praised the two, Jerome accepted the credit and bragged about how much work he had done and how his creativity was on fire for this one!

For the next two weeks, Daniel stewed and moped and agonized minute by minute – 24/7. At first, he was just mad at John; but then, he began to hate him. He became excessively angry and frustrated. After about three days, Daniel started having headaches that lasted for hours. On day four, he experienced a stiff neck. From there, his back started stiffening and aching. By the end of the week, Daniel caught a cold and then came down with bronchitis and took the next three days off of work.

So what just happened? Did Daniel get sick because he was just unlucky? Role of the dice? Luck of the draw? Or was his negative emotional state causing his symptoms and sickness?

According to the National Cancer Institute, people who experience high levels of psychological stress or who experience it repeatedly over a long period of time may develop health problems—both mental and physical. (1)

How Does the Body Respond When Stressed?

The body responds to physical, mental, or emotional pressure by releasing stress hormones, which are necessary for survival. When intense stress becomes long-term (i.e., chronic), people can experience digestive problems, fertility problems, urinary problems, and a weakened immune system, as reported in the Harvard Review Public Health (2).

People who experience chronic stress are also more prone to viral infections such as the flu or common cold and to have headaches, sleep trouble, depression, anxiety, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. While chronic anger and anxiety can disrupt cardiac function by changing the heart’s electrical stability, hastening atherosclerosis, and increasing systemic inflammation, there is no evidence yet that they directly cause cancer. (2)

Your body responds to the way you think, feel and act, according to Family Doctor.org. This is called the “mind/body connection.” When you are stressed, anxious or upset, your body tells you in a variety of ways that something’s not quite right. (3)  

One researcher at the University of Pennsylvania has even transferred this theory to groups, proving there was a direct correlation between negativity of tweets using Twitter® and the risk for heart disease in a community. (4) As if that’s not enough, it looks like research is also suggesting that chronic stress can actually shorten our lifespan by changing the parts of our DNA strands that play a large role in aging. (5)

Coping Is Critical

While anger and sadness are an important part of life, attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire. (6) New research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. People who have good emotional health, according to Family Doctor.org, have learned healthy ways to cope with the stress and problems that are a normal part of life and are aware of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. (3)

What Can You Do About Stress?

With all this research suggesting that our negative emotional health can make us sick and even shorten our lifespans, what is a person to do, aside from being positive and happy for the rest of their natural life? The American Psychological Association offers the following tips:

Identify what’s causing your stress. Monitor your state of mind throughout the day. When you begin to feel stressed, write down the cause, your thoughts and your mood. Once you realize what’s bothering you, make a plan for addressing it.

Build strong, positive relationships. Some relationships are toxic and only add to your stress. Healthy relationships can serve as stress buffers. Reach out to family members or close friends, and share with them the tough time you are having. Those with whom you have a healthy relationship may be able to offer practical help and support, useful ideas or just a fresh perspective as you begin to tackle whatever is causing your stress.

Walk away when you’re angry. Before you react, take time to regroup by counting to 10. Then reconsider or try thinking about the problem from a different angle.

Keep walking. Exercise increases the production of endorphins, your body’s natural mood-booster. Walking or other physical activities can help you cool off emotionally. Committing to a daily walk or other form of low-stress exercise can make a big difference in reducing stress levels.

Rest your mind. With stress keeping more than 40% of adults lying awake at night, research shows that activities like yoga and relaxation exercises not only help reduce stress, but also boost immune functioning. To help you get the recommended seven or eight hours of sleep a night, eliminate or cut back on caffeine, remove electronics from your bedroom and go to bed at the same time each night. (6)

Keep a journal (see fig A). Writing in a personal journal when faced with negative thoughts can help you to identify and defeat negative attitudes. Use the journal in figure A, filling in the blanks with positive things from your life. Write at least one example for each section. Add to the list as you go on and revisit these experiences whenever you are feeling stressed or angry.
Get help. If you continue to feel overwhelmed, talk to a mental health professional who can help you learn how to manage your stress and avoid health problems.

Why Should I Tell My Doctor?

If you are concerned that you may be suffering physically from negative emotions or high levels of stress, seek the help you need as soon as possible. Even if you have never talked with your doctor about your emotions or feelings, it’s important to be honest with him or her. Understand that your doctor may not be able to tell that you’re feeling stressed, anxious or upset just by looking at you. Be open to your doctor, and tell him or her everything. Then your doctor will have all the information needed to offer professional advice and guide you in a workable treatment plan.

There is hope for healing. A licensed, certified counselor is available to talk to you at Clay Behavioral Health Center. You can call for an appointment at 904.291.5561, or walk in to our office Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. Clay Behavioral can point you in the direction of good health with answers to your questions and help for your worries.

Figure ACreating Your Stress Journal
AccomplishmentsStrengthsAffirmations
These are your achievements – things you’ve completed successfullyThese are your abilities, assets, or qualities – what you’re good at.These are positive statements or declarations of the truth
Ex: I won MVP on my softball team.I am good at paintingI know I am talented.
My team won first place at the tournament.I am a good cleaner. I notice details where others miss themI know my looks are unique and I am beautiful.
Happy Memories/Positive Experiences
Write a description of an event or experience from your life that made you feel happy.Source: Brownsville Independent School District Website

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