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Long-term stress can take a toll on the body.

By: Kathy Hubbard

Stress is a normal human reaction. As a matter of fact, our bodies are designed to experience stress and react to it. It is most often a positive thing, keeping us alert, motivated and able to avoid danger. But – and you knew there was going to be a “but” in this sentence, – stress becomes a problem when it continues without relief.

“The body’s autonomic nervous system controls your heart rate, breathing, vision changes and more,” Cleveland Clinic explains. “Its built-in stress response, the ‘fight-or-flight response,’ helps the body face stressful situations. When a person has long-term (chronic) stress, continued activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body.”

WebMD says that “stress can affect all parts of your life, including your emotions, behaviors, thinking ability, and physical health. No part of the body is immune. But, because people handle stress differently, symptoms of stress can vary. Symptoms can be vague and may be the same as those caused by medical conditions. So, it is important to discuss them with your doctor.”

They say that we can break these symptoms into four categories: emotional, physical, cognitive, and behavioral. “Emotional symptoms of stress include becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody; feeling overwhelmed, as if you are losing control or need to take control; having a hard time relaxing and quieting your mind; feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), and feeling lonely, worthless, and depressed; avoiding others.

“Physical symptoms of stress include low energy; headaches; upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea; aches pains, and tense muscles; chest pain and rapid heartbeat; insomnia; frequent colds and infections; loss of sexual desire and/or ability; nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ears, and cold or sweaty hands and feet; dry mouth and a hard time swallowing; clenched jaw and grinding teeth.

“Cognitive symptoms of stress include constant worrying; racing thoughts, forgetfulness, and disorganization; inability to focus; poor judgment; being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side. And finally, behavioral symptoms of stress include changes in appetite – either not eating or eating too much; procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities; more use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes; having more nervous behaviors such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing.”

The American Psychological Association says that stress can be a positive, motivating force, but often it’s the opposite. “If you experience stress over a prolonged period of time, it could become chronic – unless you take action. The long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that come with it can disrupt almost all of your body’s processes.”

This disruption can put you at risk for anxiety, depression, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment. “Chronic stress also suppresses the body’s immune system, making it harder to recover from illness,” the APA says.

APA says the first step is to identify what’s causing the stress. “Monitor your state of mind throughout the day. If you feel stressed, write down the cause, your thoughts, and your mood. Once you know what’s bothering you, develop a plan for addressing it. That might mean setting more reasonable expectations for yourself and others or asking for help with household responsibilities, job assignments, or other tasks. List all your commitments, assess your priorities, and then eliminate any tasks that are not absolutely essential.”

The internet has lots of advice for reducing stress. I’ll advise you to talk to your primary care provider when you feel overwhelmed, if you’re using drugs or alcohol to cope, or right away if you have thoughts of hurting yourself.

Cleveland Clinic suggests trying relaxation activities such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing and muscle relaxation exercises. “Take good care of your body each day. Eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep help your body handle stress much better.”

They also say to stay positive and be grateful for the good parts of your day; accept that you can’t control everything; learn to say “no” to added responsibilities that you don’t have time for; stay connected with people who keep you calm, make you happy, and provide emotional support.

BGH’s Behavioral Health Clinic’s phone number is 208-265-1090.

Kathy Hubbard is a member of the Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com. This article was written for publication in the Bonner County Daily Bee on April 24, 2024.

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