The question: I know I am as stressed a person as they come. I always worry about my health, my job, my family, my relationships. I normally just deal with my stress, but lately I notice my stress is taking on physical forms. I've started to get pains in my chest and stomach, and I sometimes even throw up without notice. Everything I eat, even healthy things, seem to give me heartburn. I've seen my doctor and they told me nothing is wrong apart from stress. What can I do to fix this? Is stress really making my body break down?
The answer: We all know how it feels to be overwhelmed by the stress of work deadlines, relationship commitments and taking care of ourselves and our loved ones. It sounds like you're experiencing quite a few symptoms that are worsened by stress, and it's taking a toll on your body. The good news: You're recognizing that stress may be the cause of your symptoms, and this is the first step in making positive changes for your health.
Let's understand how stress triggers these physical responses and why.
Our natural defence system (our fight-or-flight response) is activated when we are in danger or face a threat. In the distant past, this evolutionary response to threats allowed us to flee dangerous situations. While these threats are rare nowadays, this stress response still occurs when we face challenges in our daily lives.
When the response is activated, it results in a cascade release of stress hormones: epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. These hormones make our hearts beat faster and our muscles tense, and they increases our blood sugar – all physical changes that prepare our body to flee. Cortisol also causes a decrease in "non-essential" functions of the body, such as digestion and immune response, in order to preserve energy to flee danger.
Usually, this response turns off when the stress passes. If, however, you are chronically stressed like you describe, it may remain on. Long-term activation of our stress response and chronic exposure to these hormones can break your body down. It can increase your risk of health problems, including sleep disruption, decrease in immune function and healing, digestion issues, obesity, memory and mood change.
Additionally, stress can worsen pre-existing medical conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and skin conditions such as psoriasis.
You can reduce the effect of stress on your life by building some resources to better deal with it. Try the following stress reduction tips:
- 1. Identify the sources of stress in your life: There are certainly things that are out of your control, but perhaps there are small but meaningful changes you can make in your life. For example, a patient recently came in feeling overwhelmed and suffered from neck pain every time she drove into work in heavy traffic. She found that by carpooling with a colleague, she was able to decrease the stress of commuting and actually enjoyed the journey more than when driving alone – and her neck pain resolved itself!
- 2. Change your reaction: When faced with stress, we often react too quickly, causing an increase in our anger, disappointment or sadness. By stepping back and taking a moment to reflect, you may be able to deal with the conflict in a more effective way. Good reflection practices and coping strategies can be found online or with the support of a counsellor.
- 3. Schedule relaxation time into your day: Just like you schedule meetings or appointments, set aside time in your day for yourself. Start with five to 10 minutes of quiet time per day that is free from phones and e-mail. Use this time to breathe or meditate, which not only calms you immediately, but also has a sustained effect on your stress response throughout the day.
- 4. Exercise regularly: Regular physical activity relieves tension by deepening your breathing and relaxing tense muscles. Exercise can include walking, running or more calming movements such as tai chi or yoga.
- 5. Build your social support: While relationships can be stressful, social support can enhance your life. Having close relationships with friends or family has been found to buffer the effects of stress during times of crisis.
- 6. Take care of yourself with a healthy lifestyle: Get enough sleep (six to nine hours a night) and eat a healthy diet. When you’re sleep deprived or hungry, your ability to cope with stress decreases.
- 7. Declutter your schedule: It feels great when we clean out a cluttered space at home or work, and the same holds true of our life commitments. Do an inventory of your schedule and prioritize: What’s important to maintain and what can you remove to create more time for yourself?
It's reassuring that you saw your doctor and they didn't find an underlying cause for your symptoms. But if they persist after trying some of these stress-reduction techniques, I recommend returning to your doctor to make sure nothing has changed in your health.
Stress is inevitable. But by learning to deal with it effectively, you'll be better able to handle anything that life sends your way.
Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.
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