How Stress Hurts You and How to Cope
Working 80- to 90-hour weeks at a new job for a law firm doing commercial litigation, Josiane Abel found herself under a heavy burden that put her health squarely in the crosshairs.
“I could hardly stand the pain caused by stress,” says the member from South Miami, Fla., describing chronic tension in her back and shoulders as worse than ever before. Stress-induced headaches compounded her discomfort. “I also ended up in the hospital with colitis,” Able says. She blames that on stress, too, a factor known to exacerbate the condition. “My colon ... started bleeding,” she says.
In small quantities and limited bursts, stress can propel us to perform at our highest level. But in large doses and when it becomes a way of life, research shows all that aggravation can wreck health — from increasing anxiety and depression rates to causing headaches, raising the risk of heart attack and even hastening death — in addition to eroding quality of life. “It has short-term benefits, and long-term costs,” says research scientist George Slavich, director of the Laboratory for Stress Assessment and Research at UCLA in Los Angeles.
The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America 2013 survey, released in February, finds high stress and ineffective coping mechanisms — such as eating poorly and sitting in front of a TV for hours daily — ingrained in our culture. The APA has commissioned the survey since 2007 and reports that 78 percent of American adults say their stress levels have increased or stayed the same over the past five years, with work, money and the economy ranked as the most commonly reported worries.
About one-third of adults surveyed say stress had a strong or very strong impact on their physical health and roughly the same proportion say it affected their mental health. A study published in March in the journal Human Reproduction also found that longstanding stress may decrease a woman’s ability to become pregnant.
Though experts have debated that link, the weight of the world has already proven to reduce couples’ chances of procreation in another way: hiking rates of impotence in men. Dr. Richard Colgan, professor of family and community medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, notes that we take our troubles home with us, into our relationships and behind closed doors: “It’s common to see erectile dysfunction caused by stress,” he says.
Fortunately, there are ways to manage, such as exercise, reliance on positive relationships and meditation, that physical and mental health professionals say allow us to meet life’s challenges head on without sacrificing personal wellness or longevity.
Deep breath: Learning to cope
“Breathing exercises are maybe my favorite,” says Dr. Denise Millstine, senior associate consultant in women’s health internal medicine and integrative medicine at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. “They can be done anywhere.” That includes between meetings, drawing breath in for six seconds and breathing out for six seconds, and they can be combined with walking meditations, she says. Millstine instructs stressed-out patients in her office on such breathing exercises, and directs them to Mayo Clinic classes and a clinic mobile app guiding them in meditation exercises.
“We have our fight-or-flight response literally for survival,” Millstine says, but she and other experts say when we’re constantly in survival mode, it can take a toll on the body and mind. Stress can annoy or embarrass, or literally kill. It can increase irritability, itching, asthma attacks, worsen skin conditions, such as acne, psoriasis and eczema, and lead to other issues many of us would rather not talk about.
“The stress response is meant to be protective,” Millstine says. “So when you’re being chased by a tiger in the woods you don’t have a bowel movement, [which would slow you down].” But that can play out differently over the course of a difficult week at the office. “With stress we see a lot of constipation,” she says.
In some way or another, stress can affect every major system in the body, and doctors have long taken notice of the palliative benefits of being able to manage it effectively, says Colgan, who practices at the highly rated University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and authored the book “Advice to the Healer: On the Art of Caring.”
“As we grapple with stress today ... it’s been grappled with for thousands of years,” he says. “Some of the best healers around the world have recognized that over the course of history.”
Stress management, yesterday and today
Though Hippocrates didn’t refer to stress by that name, Colgan says what we know of the so-called father of medicine — like so many practitioners ancient past to present — shows he appreciated well the detrimental health effects of feeling burdened by the troubles of the day. “He urged that patients take better care of themselves by changing their lifestyle,” Colgan says.
The primary care provider advocates a similar holistic approach to manage stress with his patients, such as seeking to improve work-life balance, practicing increased mindfulness, including to identify stressors, and giving yoga a stretch. “I try to prescribe [a healthy] diet, exercise and looking at one’s daily activities,” he says, as well as keeping stimulants, such as alcohol, caffeine and tobacco, to a minimum.
“We are finite human beings; we all have our limits of what we’re able to handle,” adds Kimble Richardson, a mental health expert with highly rated Community Health Network in Indianapolis, who has clinical experience in stress management. “That’s why it’s always very important to have that good work-life balance such that you’re not one dimensional.”
Mental health professionals note that internal struggles — such as a history of depression — can play a pivotal role in one’s ability to manage stress, in addition to external factors. Richardson encourages seeking support from family and friends, and help from a professional as needed. “Mental illness is not a personal weakness, it’s a medical illness,” Richardson says.
He says research shows optimism, a sense of hope and spirituality can improve one’s ability to handle stressful events in life. “To have a sense of faith and hope, that creates resilience in people,” Richardson says.
RELATED: Signs of stress
Finding relief for what ails
Seeking to ease the stress-related pain she experienced, Abel went in January 2013 to see highly rated physical therapist and acupuncturist Karen Gordon in South Miami, a doctor of oriental medicine.
“My massage therapist sent me there because she could not help eliminate the deep tension in my back and shoulders,” Abel says. She paid about $100 per session for roughly 15 visits over the span of several months, and Gordon performed deep massage, acupuncture and craniosacral therapy, an alternative therapy that involves gently manipulating the skull and spine. “After working with her, I was completely pain-free and able to manage my stress levels,” Abel says. “She made me more conscious of how I felt.”
She says that the firm she worked for, which she described as dysfunctional, closed and she’s looking for another job. She says, on Gordon’s advice, she now pays close attention to how she’s feeling and identifying the stressors in her life. She gets regular massages, and also walks. “I think taking that first step and getting help for your stress and realizing how damaging it is,” has made all the difference, Abel says. “I don’t ignore it. It’s a priority to manage my stress.”