Lisa Hardesty, Ph.D.
Behavioral Health, Psychiatry & Psychology
We all react to stress differently. How we experience and react to that stress has the potential to lead to health issues. Periods of excessive stress have been linked to problems that increase heart disease risk, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating.
Your body's response to stress may include:
- A headache
- Back strain
- Stomach pains
- Other physical symptoms
Stress can also make you feel tired, disturb normal sleep patterns, and leave you feeling irritable, forgetful and out of control. When stress is constant, your body remains in high gear off and on for days or weeks at a time, which can lead to health problems.
Can managing stress reduce or prevent heart disease?
Managing our stress levels is always a good idea when it comes to our overall health. There are studies underway looking more closely into whether managing stress is effective for heart disease. However, patients who have experienced a heart attack or stroke and feel depressed, anxious or overwhelmed by stress should contact their doctor or other health care professionals for additional help.
Some ways to reduce stress
Reducing stress can take many forms. Understanding your triggers and recognizing where your stress comes from is a first step. Take inventory of your life and ask yourself:
- What can I stop doing?
- What can I let go of?
There are many things we can do to manage stress and build resources. As a psychologist, I typically ask people to do things from all of the following categories: physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual. A few ideas to adopt include:
- Harnessing your strengths. “I feel most energetic, fulfilled and full of life when I am doing…”
- Social activities. Chat with a colleague or loved one, or catch up with an old friend in person.
- Engage in a selfless activity. Try volunteering or performing a random act of kindness.
- Start something. Be creative, and try it for five minutes to begin with.
- Begin to journal. Be mindful of your daily life.
Additional tips to help combat stress
There are a number of things we can all do in order to relieve stress in our lives, including:
- Regular exercise
- Maintain a positive attitude
- Avoid smoking
- Avoid caffeine
- Eat healthy
- Maintain a healthy weight
In some situations, medicine may help. However, when it comes to stress, medication is often approached as a last resort. Instead, look to manage the stress you are experiencing using relaxation or other learned stress-reducing techniques. Also, make sure you are not confusing stress for an anxiety disorder, which is a separate condition you should discuss with your health care provider.
Can stress be good for us?
Yes, of course. Good stress can come in the form of weddings, a job you love or your kids. This type of stress is normal and, in fact, beneficial. We need a little bit of stress to have optimal functioning in our daily lives. Stress can enhance focus and concentration and move us to connect more with others, which ultimately helps us manage stress better.