How to develop stress smarts
BY DR. JUNE CHING
Feeling burdened, pressured and stressed?
A recently released Stress in America Survey by the American Psychological Association confirms that many Americans are indeed stressed. Out of more than 3,000 respondents, 72 percent reported feeling stressed about money at least some of the time during the past month. Other top causes of stress were work (60 percent), family responsibilities (47 percent) and health concerns (46 percent). Women, parents, younger people and those living in lower income households all reported higher levels of stress than others.
Since this is National Stress Prevention Month, it’s an opportune time to learn about how stress can take a toll on our minds and bodies, while focusing on setting up a self-care plan for actually coping with stress in healthy ways.
What is stress?
“Mental, emotional, or physical strain caused by anxiety or overwork” is one definition of stress. When asked, those who are stressed say they are “over-worked and under-appreciated,” “feeling that I’m not doing well enough,” “makes me feel that I cannot do enough in the hours I have, and that my bills may never be paid” and “feeling like I can’t keep up.” They further describe it as “pressure,” which can makes them feel “overwhelmed,” “inadequate,” “frustrated,” “exhausted,” “anxious,” and “panicky.”
Interestingly, not all stress is negative. Having some level of stress helps us to deal with life demands, transitions, and challenges. It is adaptive for energy. However, acute big stressors and excessive chronic stress are dangerous for our health, especially when people engage in unhealthy coping strategies.
How stress affects you
Stress is recognized as the No. 1 substitute killer disease today. The American Medical Association has noted that stress is the basic cause of more than 60 percent of all human illness and disease.
Stress can affect the body in short-term ways, causing fatigue, upset stomach or indigestion, muscular tension, change in appetite, teeth grinding, decreased sex drive, feeling faint or dizzy.
Long term effects include high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, chronic pain, immune system problems, and mental health difficulties. When emotional health is impacted by stress, there can be symptoms of sleep disturbance, fatigue, decreased motivation and interest level, mood disturbance (depression/anxiety, irritability/anger), panic disorders, headaches, dizziness, eating disorders (anorexia, weight gain, obesity), and substance abuse.
How not to deal with stress
Unhealthy coping strategies in dealing with stress are of concern, as there is a definite connection between prolonged stress and mind-body health. Stress can lead to a vicious cycle in which people engage in negative unhealthy behaviors such as overeating, binging on high calorie but low nutrition junk food, drinking in excess, smoking, and avoiding exercise.
In turn, these negative lifestyle choices impact lives, relationships, and families, along with increasing the risk for poor physical and emotional health. As a practicing psychologist, I recognize that we can’t have good health if we don’t have good mental health.
Are you making unhealthy choices because of stress?
• Candies are the leading go-to food when you’re stressed. This is followed by ice cream, potato and other chips, cookies/cakes, fast food, pizza/pasta, and snack crackers. Take stock of whether you need to gain control over behaviors and moods related to emotional eating.
• Putting off exercise until you are less stressed is counterproductive. In addition to the disease prevention benefits from regular physical activity and exercise, you will have more energy, sleep better and have a healthier state of mind. Being sedentary keeps you from releasing those feel-good chemicals in your brain, such as serotonin, endorphins and stress hormones.
• If you’re using alcohol to de-stress, you need to be cautious. Instead of relaxing, drinking stimulates production of the stress hormone cortisol, creating a cycle of feeling stressed, wanting to drink and then wanting to drink more.
• Smoking and using drugs are unhealthy coping devices to deal with stress and anxiety. These are only short-term coping choices at best. When the effects of alcohol, nicotine or marijuana wear off, your sources of stress will still remain. It’s like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound.
Tomorrow: We’ll continue our discussion about stress and stress prevention. Dr. Ching will outline some of the things you can do to start managing your stress. In the meantime, head over to our Facebook page to let us know how you manage stress.
June W. J. Ching, Ph.D., ABPP is a Board Certified clinical psychologist who practices in Honolulu. She specializes in the assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, adults, couples and families. She is past-president of the Hawaii Psychological Association and former chief psychologist at Kapiolani Medical Center for women and children. Ching received her master’s degree from Harvard University and her doctoral degree from Northwestern University. She holds a clinical affiliate faculty appointment at the University of Hawaii’s Clinical Studies Program.