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Why You Need to Learn to Control Stress

Stress is a part of life, especially lately. If you’re alive, there’s no way of escaping it. But there are ways to mitigate it, and the harmful effects it can have on the body.

So our primary care doctors in Delray Beach want to explain what’s so dangerous about it, and suggest ways to help control it.

Good stress and bad stress

All stress isn’t bad. Without a certain amount of stress, we couldn’t survive.

In 1936 Dr. Hans Selye defined stress as “the non-specific responses of the body to any demand for change. He then distinguished between “eustress” or good stress, and “distress,” or bad stress.

Eustress is the kind you experience when vacationing in an unfamiliar place or preparing for the holidays or retiring from your job. Distress is anything that causes you anger, or anxiety, or sleepless nights.

In the case of either eustress or distress, the physical reactions are largely the same: quickened heart rate, tense muscles, increased respiration and heightened reaction time. This is due to the release of the hormone cortisol, which prepares the body for the fight-or-flight response, and is necessary to maintain life.

Pluses and minuses of cortisol

Secreted by the adrenal glands, cortisol regulates the metabolism of glucose, aids in immune function, and helps repair tissue damage. When released into the body through the fight-or-flight syndrome, cortisol imparts the sudden burst of energy needed to flee a saber-tooth tiger or dodge an oncoming car.

When taken to extremes, however, it can ultimately damage or impair practically every bodily function. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be the type of high-level stress that comes from being in a battle or running a marathon.

Drip, drip, drip of stress

Smaller day-to-day stresses can quickly take a toll on our bodies. Financial problems, family issues, caring for a sick loved one . . . all these difficulties or others like them can raise cortisol just enough to keep us in a constant state of low-level stress.

Psychology Today calls cortisol “Public Enemy No. 1,” and lists just a few of the ways elevated cortisol levels can be detrimental to your health:

  • interfering with learning and memory
  • lowering immune function and bone density
  • increasing weight gain
  • elevating blood pressure and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
  • increasing rates of heart disease
  • increasing risk for depression
  • lowering life expectancy overall

Two studies published in the journal Science also identified elevated cortisol as a potential spark for mental illness and decreased resilience. Other studies have found that excess cortisol suppresses thyroid function, triggers digestive problems and headaches, and contributes to insomnia.

The stress we encounter day by day never seems to end. Therefore your cortisol levels never have a chance to drop back to normal, and this results in the illnesses listed above. Because cortisol releases extra glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream, increases the heart rate, stimulates inflammation, and raises your blood pressure, it can disrupt every system in the body if it remains high for long periods of time.

Latest findings

A new study on stress points out the risk of increased levels of cortisol on the body, particularly on the cardiovascular system. The study, published in September in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association (AHA), illustrated the long-term effects of stress.

Researchers followed 412 adults between the ages of 48 and 87. All participants had normal blood pressure at the start of the study. They regularly tested urine levels for stress hormones of participants from 2005 to 2008, an objective way to measure stress.

They found that those who had double the amount of cortisol from continual stress had a 90 percent higher risk of having a cardiovascular event. This is compared with those with normal levels of cortisol over the course of the study.

Catch it early

Although it’s impossible to avoid stress in today’s modern world, it’s important to keep cortisol levels in check. This is easier to do if you become aware of what’s happening and stop your stress levels. It’s best to stop before they spiral out of control.

“You can decide to change your mindset about that stressful situation or set boundaries—just by being aware you can keep that stress from becoming toxic to you,” Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for Contentment magazine, produced by the American Institute of Stress, told CNN.

She was not involved in the study.

“You want to intervene earlier, when you’re just starting to mount your stress response, with some deep breathing or another relaxation response,” she added.

Whenever you feel your stress levels rise, one way to help get your reaction under control might be to ask yourself a simple question: “Is this worth dying for?”

Here are some others:

  1. Eat a healthy diet.
  2. Get at least seven hours of sleep a night.
  3. Practice deep breathing or other types of relaxation responses.
  4. Exercise, preferably outdoors.
  5. Listen to music or engage in a hobby.

If despite these tips you still feel chronically stressed, please talk to us. We can suggest other strategies that can help. Also, we can investigate any hidden health issues that may be causing or contributing to your stress.

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