The stress response: the good and the bad
Stress is a daily fact of life. Stress hormones jump start your brain and body into action. They make your heart race when you're falling in love, help you escape a burning building—or meet an important deadline.
Stress can be triggered by external and internal sources. External stressors can include your crying baby, loss of a job, a job promotion, problems with an intimate relationship, and having a chronic disease. Internal stressors have to do with your attitude and your positive or negative view of the external stressor.
Good stress goes bad.
Stress is like a light that turns on when you need it. But when you can't turn it off, you run the risk of burnout which can impact your health.
Chronic stress weakens the immune system and increases the risk for a number of illnesses including heart disease, diabetes, and depression. Most research studies about the effects of stress on MS have been inconclusive, but one recent study by Dr. David Mohr at the University of California, San Francisco, found significant increases in MS relapses following stressful life events.
The tell-tale signs of chronic stress:
- Feeling hopeless, helpless, guilty, worthless*
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Persistent nervousness
- Chronic worry or anxiety
- Sad or “down” feelings*
- Stomach aches, constipation, diarrhea, cramps, or nausea
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle tightness
- Shallow breathing
- Trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep
- Loss of interest in usual activities, including sex*
- Eating too much or too little*
- Decreased energy; feeling “slowed down”*
- Distractibility and impaired memory*
- Difficulty making decisions*
- Feeling empty or “numb” *
(* also a symptom of depression)
You CAN take control of runaway stress
1. Identify the stressors.
- What produces stress in your life? Is it marital problems? Do you need more help at home? Develop steps to deal with the issue or seek professional help.
- Rate your stressor. Will it be important next week or next month? Put things in perspective. Let go of the small stuff.
- Bolster your attitude. Negative thinking can make stress worse. You can't control all the stressors but developing more positive thinking patterns can create a better attitude which can lessen stress. A mental health professional can help you identify and change negative thinking patterns.
2. The odd couple—stress and depression
- Which comes first—the chicken or the egg? It doesn't matter when unrelenting stress and its companion depression become a self-perpetuating cycle. If you find it difficult to implement strategies for reducing stress or if your stress symptoms overlap with those of depression, seek help from a mental health professional. For referrals, speak to your healthcare provider or call your Society chapter.
3. It's important to keep stress in check for your overall health. Here are some ways to “give your body a rest” from stress.
- Get physical. Exercise reduces the effects of stress hormones on the body. Consult your healthcare professional about starting an exercise program.
- Learn and practice stress management techniques such as visualization, meditation, or relaxation and breathing exercises. Classes and audio/visual resources are available to lead you through these activities.
- Change focus. Get off the stress cycle by doing something that gives you pleasure. Read, write in a journal, stroke your pet, listen to soothing music, or pursue your hobby.
- Reach out. Call a friend to share what's troubling you. Build a support network.
- Get some rest. Develop regular sleep habits. And take a break during the day if fatigue gets in the way.
- Learn a one-minute stress reducer to use anywhere or anytime. Find a special word to repeat ("one", "home", or "love" are good ones); take slow, deep belly breaths, or call up a happy picture in your head.
- Get a whiff. Many people find that aromatherapy helps promote relaxation. Among the essential oils that seem to promote relaxation are lavender, geranium, mandarin, neroli, and ylang ylang. Go for pure products. Put a drop on a tissue and breathe. A little goes a long way.
- Laugh. Keep a few comedy tapes or DVDs on hand
- Develop gratitude. Take time to appreciate something good in your life each day.
Author: Jude Meyer, PhD, Can Do Multiple Sclerosis