April 14, 2023

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Handling stress can lead to a healthy, positive life

David Bethuram

Stress Awareness Month has been recognized every April since 1992, but with the challenges during the past couple of years it now seems particularly important.

Learning to cope with our stress and finding healthy ways to deal with these situations can go a long way in living a healthy and positive life.

We all experience stress—yet we may experience it in very different ways. Because of this, there is no single definition for stress, but the most common explanation is a physical, mental or emotional strain or tension.

Stress is a reaction to a situation where a person feels anxious or threatened. Learning healthy ways to cope and getting the proper care and support can help reduce stressful feelings and symptoms.

While we might be aware of the connection between the stress in our lives and our emotions, it’s not always easy to identify the connection between stress and our physical well-being. When we experience headaches, back pain, heartburn or even a cold that just won’t go away, it’s natural to look for physical answers for these physical problems. However, stress can sometimes be the culprit.

Our bodies are prepared to handle some stress since it is an inevitable part of life. We all generally deal with some stress regularly, whether it’s stress at work or school, stress in our families or other relationships, stress caused by societal events or circumstances, or stress related to finances. However, long-term or chronic stress can take a serious toll on our bodies, from our immune system to our cardiovascular system.

When the stress response is triggered, stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, are released to prepare our bodies to survive the threat (even in stressful situations that are not life-threatening). Our hearts beat faster, our blood pressure rises, and we start to breathe faster so that our bodies are able to fight, flee or freeze. Usually, our bodies come back down to normal after the threat or stressor has passed. However, when we are dealing with chronic stress, our response remains activated along with the physiological processes that are intended to help our bodies survive. This has consequences on the body.

Chronic stress is associated with physical health symptoms across the body’s systems. In the musculoskeletal system, chronic muscle tension caused by chronic stress is associated with tension and migraine headaches as well as chronic back pain.

In the cardiovascular system, due to the frequent release of stress hormones in the body and the subsequent increase in one’s heart rate and blood pressure, chronic stress puts a person at an increased risk for hypertension, heart attack and stroke.

Chronic stress impacts the body’s immune system by increasing inflammation and the risk of rheumatic (autoimmune) diseases while decreasing the body’s ability to fight off infection and cancer cells. In the gastrointestinal system, chronic stress can cause gut discomfort and bloating to be felt more easily. Changes in diet due to stress, including eating more or consuming more alcohol or tobacco, can lead to other gastrointestinal issues, such as heartburn, diarrhea or constipation. This list could go on, as the impact of chronic stress can be widespread throughout the body.

Whether or not you suffer from any chronic physical or mental health condition, it is worth addressing the stress you face in life. The effects of stress build up through time and can lead to physical and mental health conditions that may sneak up on us.

In addition, stress can become overwhelming fast. But when we learn coping strategies and stress-relieving activities that work for us, not only do we become better equipped to deal with stress as it arises, but we also help protect our bodies and minds from the harmful effects of chronic stress.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. You can contact him at dbethuram@archindy.org.) †

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