On June 6, 1983, the cover story of Time magazine called stress “The Epidemic of the Eighties” and referred to it as the nation’s leading health problem. Fast forward 30 years, and there is little doubt that this situation not only is an epidemic, but has also progressively worsened over the course of the past three decades.
“Close to 80 percent of the patients I see have stress-related conditions,” says Dr. Paul Louis Preslar of OU Physicians Family Medicine group. “Can you say stroke, diabetes, heart attack or cancer? These conditions are all directly related to stress.”
With all the advances in technology and in medicine, why has stress continued to reach such epidemic proportions, and why have we not learned how to manage it better?
“Stress can’t be cured with a magic pill; it’s an emotional condition that can have negative effects on the body,” says Dr. Theron Bliss, who practices sports medicine at St. John Health System. “The key is to identify what your stressors are, then to come up with a plan to manage it.”
However, some stress can actually be good for you. Bliss refers to this as acute stress.
“Everyone’s heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response,” says Bliss. “This is a human instinct that helps us survive.
“While we may not be running from wild animals every day, the chemical reaction we have to certain stressful situations can help us accomplish things that we otherwise could not. The increase in blood flow to our body during these situations actually helps us focus.”
Preslar agrees that a certain amount of stress can be good for you.
“Not striving for goals, not overcoming challenges, not having a reason to wake up in the morning would be damaging to us,” says Preslar. “This type of positive stress keeps us vital and excited about life.”
However, it is the chronic stress that is cause for concern.
“This type of stress is a reaction to emotional stress that has been suffered for a prolonged period of time,” says Bliss. “This is not just a state of mind; this type of stress can affect the body as well.”
Common effects of stress are fatigue, agitation, insomnia, rise in blood pressure and over- or undereating.
But besides the obvious, stress can manifest itself in other ways.
“When stress levels get too intense, there are some stress symptoms that many people experience, and they don’t realize come from stress,” says Preslar. “For example, headaches, irritability and ‘fuzzy thinking’ can all be symptoms that you are under too much stress.”
To determine if a patient is under chronic stress, Preslar asks a series of questions.
“I may ask patients, ‘Do you find yourself drinking alcohol more to relax, smoking to deal with stress or using other vices? Do you find yourself getting sick more often than usual? Do you find yourself getting less joy from your work and feeling a sense of burnout?’ Answers to these questions help me determine what is really going on with someone.”
Bliss helps his patients identify the sources of their stress and develops an action plan with a timeline.
“Most people don’t even realize what is causing them stress until they write it down,” says Bliss.
“Obviously there are things that you can’t control, like caring for a sick family member, or a tragedy like a death or fire,” says Bliss. “However, if it’s your job or relationship that is causing you stress; those are the types of things you can make decision on how to handle.”
There are several coping mechanisms for stress such as exercise, rest, balanced diet, deep breathing techniques and just taking a break from the situation.
“Even if it just means walking around the block, that can give you an outlet for your frustration and a renewed focus,” says Bliss.