This is a guest post by Kristen Nichols Heitman, MPH, an epidemiologist in the Rickettsial Zoonoses Branch in the Division of Vector-Borne Diseases in the National Center for Emerging Zoonotic and Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). She received a Master of Public Health (MPH) with a concentration in epidemiology from Georgia State University.

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What is stress?

“I am so stressed out!” “My job really stresses me out.” You’ve probably heard similar statements – or even said them yourself – throughout your life. But what exactly is stress? Stress is a normal psychological and physical reaction. When your brain perceives a threat, a “flight or fight” response, a survival mechanism hardwired into our nervous system, kicks in and your body releases a burst of hormones. When these hormones are released, your blood pressure, heart rate, and glucose level increase; other hormones suppress functions like digestion and the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to illness. Once the threat is gone, your body is designed to turn this reaction off and return to a relaxed state.

Unfortunately, the nonstop stresses of life do not always allow your body to turn this reaction off. This results in your body releasing stress hormones more frequently, which can have a negative impact on your health over time. Chronic stress can lead to a wide range of illnesses – from headaches to stomach disorders to depression and memory impairment – and is known to contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and even suicide.

The warning signs of stress…

… On your body … On your mood … On your behaivor
Headaches, muscle tension, neck or back pain Irritability Loss of appetite or overeating “comfort foods”
Upset stomach Short temper Angry outbursts
Dry mouth Restlessness Drug or alcohol abuse
Chest pains, rapid heartbeat Anxiety Tobacco use
Difficulty falling or staying asleep Sadness or depression Social withdrawal
Fatigue Lack of motivation or focus Constantly rushing or feeling rushed
Change in libido Memory problems or forgetfulness Crying
Increased frequency of colds Feelings of anger, helplessness, or like you’re out of control Loss of interest in normal activities
Weight gain or loss Impatience Always having a negative outlook

Managing stress

People react to stress differently and some people cope with stress more effectively than others. Knowing your signs of stress and how you respond may help you manage stress better.

Common ways to reduce and manage stress:

  • Monitor your stress level and know your stress triggers
  • Recognize the things you cannot change
  • Regular physical activity
  • Daily relaxation: meditation, practice deep breathing and yoga, get a massage
  • Maintain a healthy diet
  • Get enough sleep
  • Avoid alcohol, drugs, and tobacco
  • Find support in and talk to your friends, family, and loved ones
  • Spend time with your pets
  • Positive self-talk
  • Set priorities and learn how to say no to responsibilities which will leave you feeling overwhelmed

Seek help from a qualified mental health care provider if you are overwhelmed, feel you cannot cope, have suicidal thoughts, or are using drugs or alcohol to cope. If you or someone close to you is in crisis, call the toll-free, 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

Resources

American Heart Association: “Four ways to deal with stress”

American Heart Association: “How does stress affect you?”

Center for Disease Control and Prevention: “Managing Stress”

Mayo Clinic: “Healthy Lifestyle – Stress Management”

The conclusions, findings, and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the authors’ affiliated institutions.

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