By Guest Contributor, Paula Robinson, LCSW
One of my patients, "Ashley", is a 35-year-old real estate agent, single parent, and self-styled “soccer mom.” Ashley recently decided to take a week off to go to the beach to hang out, read books, eat seafood and just relax. But that didn’t happen.
“After two days, I was jumping out of my skin,” Ashley told me. “I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t focus on the novel I was reading and I just wanted to get up and do something.”
Sound familiar? Like many people, Ashley was chronically stressed out and experiencing “adrenaline withdrawal.” She was so addicted to the constant rush of adrenaline her body generated to help her cope with the stress in her life that she didn’t know what to do when it stopped. In fact, she was so addicted that she was willing to do anything, even abandoning her vacation, to return to the stressful life that was the source of all her anxiety.
Making matters worse, most of us are consumed with anxiety, constantly worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, things that might happen someday, and even things that might not ever happen at all. How many times have you laid awake in bed at night worrying about paying the bills? Finding a job? Fretting over your children or spouse?Ashley’s problem is not unique – few of us exist in the modern world without coping with constant pressure to balance our jobs, home, kids, health, finances…the list goes on. And every day our personal time gets put aside and being connected 24-hours to our cell phones makes it even harder to find time to decompress from work and family responsibilities. The bottom line is that we barely catch our breath, and it’s taking a huge toll on our health.
As Mark Twain once said, “I have lived a long life and had many troubles . . . most of which never happened.”
The American Psychological Association estimates that 75% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress-related problems, and surveys reveal that 75% of us report feeling “great stress” at least once a week. A study by the American Psychological Association found that more than one-third of Americans suffer extreme stress on a daily basis.
Left unresolved stress can lead to a downward spiral of depression and anxiety, causing a number of physical problems ranging from headaches and heart disease to weight gains, gastrointestinal problems, and worse.
Ashley was the first to acknowledge her problem. “I know I’m stressed, and I know my headaches are related, but I just don’t know how to break this vicious cycle,” she told me. I could see she was already paying the price of her stress with weight gain, frequent colds and chronic tiredness.
As I told Ashley, stress isn’t always bad. Stress can be a motivator. It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning and sends you to the office or to your semiannual dental checkup. But when stress takes over your life – and when you’re unable to release it – it can turn into a toxic cycle that makes you sick.
The real issue is not stress – its a part of our lives whether we like it or not. The real problem is how do you deal with stress? Without a way to resolve and release stress, you’re setting yourself up for a vicious cycle that can damage your health in the long run.
When Stress Becomes Toxic
The human response to stress is ancient and instinctive. When we think we’re in danger, our adrenal glands release the fight or flight hormone, adrenaline. Adrenaline in turn increases breathing and heart rate, sending extra blood sugar to muscles to prepare us to either flee from danger or fight for our lives.
This “fight-or-flight” response worked just fine when predators such as saber-toothed tigers threatened our ancestors. Unfortunately this mechanism doesn’t serve us well today when the threats we face are more often mental and emotional. After all, you can’t run away from your desk, your ringing telephone, your sick child or your boss’ insistence that you work overtime. You may grumble, growl or grit your teeth, but the stress response is still going to kick in, triggering the adrenals to release cortisol, the hormone of chronic stress, in an attempt to shore you up.
Unresolved stress, also referred to as chronic or toxic stress, can override your body’s natural ability to adapt and get on with your life. As stresses pile up, stress hormones become chronically elevated, suppressing your immune system and leaving you vulnerable to colds, flu, and all kinds of illnesses.
Over time toxic stress can diminish your body’s ability to produce cortisol and another adrenal hormone, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), leading you to become even less capable of responding to respond to common stressors in an appropriate way.
Here are some of the common, short-term effects of toxic stress:Suppression of immune system, increasing risk of infections
Getting Stress Under Control
As I explained to Ashley, the key to managing stress is 1) learning to recognize stress when you experience it, and 2) taking action to break the cycle to prevent it from spiraling out of control.
Unfortunately stress is such a pervasive part of modern life that most of us think of it as normal. So how do you recognize stress? Here is a list of the most immediate signs:
• Muscle tension
• Irregular breathing
• Pounding heart
• Butterflies in stomach
• Sudden flushing
Dealing with Stress
All of us need safe and effective tools to cope with stress so that we can relax, decompress and recover. For many people the tools of choice include drinks, downers, or dope, along with their well-known, destructive side effects. And while these substances can temporarily promote the release of feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine) and endorphins, they also lead to unbalanced neurotransmitter and blood sugar levels, resulting in emotional and mental imbalances caused by addiction and withdrawal.
And while the majority of visits to doctors’ offices are due to stress-related illness, conventional medicine has nothing to offer besides symptomatic care once you’ve developed a “real” illness, such as high blood pressure, ulcers, migraine headaches, back pain, or diabetes.
Clearly the best approach to preventing stress-related illnesses is to recognize stress when it affects you, learn to manage your stress before it becomes toxic, and take steps to break free of repeating chronic stress cycles. Happily, there are a number of natural options for helping you manage stress, safely and without side effect.
Lastly, reach out to a licensed mental health professional, or speak with your Primary Care Provider for access to mental health providers.
The Concierge Brandi Surratt
With nearly 10 years of experience in outsourcing management, Brandi has a proven track record with client success in HR functions, diversity, compliance and business operations. Her experience with Fortune 100 clients and beyond has helped her develop skills valuable to clients/companies of any size. She has now taken her skills to the small business market to help small businesses thrive with fewer resources.