The Doctor Is In: Reducing Stress

Content is sponsored and provided by Henry Ford Health System

Nearly everyone experiences stress-it's our body's natural reaction to sudden changes and threatening situations. Your heart rate increases, your muscles tense and your blood pressure spikes as your body prepares to fight or flee. And while these biochemical changes can fuel you through a short-term situation (say, a big work presentation), if left unchecked, they could have devastating long-term effects.

"Everyone handles stress differently. One person might have no trouble managing multiple projects and responsibilities while another person in the very same set of circumstances could feel very anxious," says Shazia Qamar, M.D., a family medicine doctor at Henry Ford Health System.

But no matter how you react to challenging situations, it's important to understand how stress impacts your body's systems. Not all stress is bad for you. Just like we strengthen our muscles by "stressing" them when we lift weights, some stress can actually be a positive. In fact, stress - in the right doses - keeps us challenged and our minds active.

When faced with emergency situations, our bodies are hard-wired to go into a 'fight or flight' response. Cue the increased heart rate, sweating and rapid breathing - all responses that make sense when you're in imminent danger but that can be overkill when you're not.

The problem is our bodies can't necessarily tell the difference and have this same response to stressful situations that aren't dangerous like a deadline at work or being stuck in traffic.

Trouble comes when you remain in a constant state of alarm. This leads to unhealthy increases of the hormone cortisol in your body, triggering the production of belly fat and several other negative physiological responses, including:

Sleep disruption
High blood pressure
Increased risk of stroke
Weight gain
Compromised immune system
Increase in depression/suicidal thoughts

Too much stress can be a major roadblock to your health and well-being. Studies have found that the combination of stress and depression was associated with a nearly 50% greater chance of dying from a heart attack or suffering from heart disease, creating the "perfect storm" of health-sabotaging factors. Those aren't the kind of odds you want to test.

Just as everyone responds differently to stress, ways of controlling stress differ.

At Henry Ford's Center for Integrative Medicine, patients are finding that meditation, acupuncture, massage and other relaxation and mind-body approaches are easing stress, increasing focus, bringing on calm and improving overall wellness. Many doctors are seeing the benefits too and referring patients for a range of reasons, including to decrease stress and anxiety and control depression.

No matter what treatment, approach to destressing you choose, know this:

1. There are 2 types of stress. Acute (or short-term) stress causes your body to gear up to face possible danger. So, if you're running a race or preparing for a test, this type of stress is normal and can even be useful because it fires you up to meet the challenge. Chronic (or long-term) stress, on the other hand, results from an ongoing issue-family conflicts, financial pressures, a terminal illness. It can put a strain on the body and make you moody, tense and depressed.

2. Stress increases your risk for nearly every disease state. While stress is part of everyone's life, if it's not managed and addressed, it can lead to serious, even life-threatening diseases. Studies show a link between stress and heart disease, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. Stress can also make existing health problems worse and leads to weight gain, depression and tummy troubles.

3. Stress requires you make your health a priority. When you're stressed, the basic principles of a balanced life tend to fall off the priority list. You might skip meals, sleep less and nix your thrice-weekly workout to free up time to meet your mounting demands. A better approach: Make a commitment to stay on top of your health in the midst of chaos. If you're well-rested, well-nourished and emotionally and physically fulfilled, you'll be better equipped to tick items off your to-do list.

4. Stress deserves a voice. People generally don't want to talk about stress and anxiety. They may feel ashamed of their life circumstances or they're leery of sharing relationship or financial concerns with others. But rather than numbing painful feelings with food, wine or other potentially harmful ways of coping, give them a voice. Sharing your concerns with friends, loved ones, even an online support community, can help you gain insight about how to better handle your stressors. Still can't stomach talk therapy? Try writing a simple journal entry. Sometimes writing out what's bothering you offers some much needed perspective. And you'll get bonus points if you tack on a gratitude list after your gripes.

5. Relaxation strategies can dramatically reduce stress levels. Tip the balance from stress-inducing to stress-reducing: Practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation, deep breathing and restorative forms of exercise like yoga and tai chi. Still can't quiet your mind? Distract yourself from your stressors by participating in activities you enjoy. Listen to music, go to the movies or take a weekend vacation. Better yet, go for a hike, shoot hoops with your kids or participate in other healthy activities that will flood your system with feel-good hormones. Consider acupuncture and massage to relax and stimulate and energy and blood flow.

6. Managing stress may require medical assistance. If you feel overwhelmed, don't be afraid to ask your doctor to screen you for anxiety and depression. Once you have a diagnosis, you'll be better equipped to deal with your personal demons. Your doctor may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (form of talk therapy that helps you challenge and reframe negative thoughts and behaviors), relaxation strategies or prescribe medication to help you with your anxiety.

Unfortunately, stress is unavoidable, especially with the competing demands of work, home and family. If you have been suffering with seemingly insurmountable symptoms of stress and anxiety for more than two months, visit your doctor for an evaluation.

More information on meditation, acupuncture and other stress-relieving treatments offered at the Henry Ford Center for Integrative Medicine.