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Stress and ILLNESS: What's the Connection?

When I see a client for the first time, I ask them, “How do you know you are experiencing stress?”

Most of the time I get answers like “I feel tension, jaw pain, can’t breathe, and have headaches…” The list goes on. When I ask them how they relax and restore themselves, there are fewer answers.

Some of the responses I hear are: exercise, sleep, massage, yoga; but most often they are going too fast, doing too much or pushing too hard, and end up in some kind of body crisis, i.e. chronic stress, chronic pain, chronic illness or burnout.

They need some help in the day to day tools to help them stay healthy. I often use humor to help them engage in some slow and steady routines for health. For example, I have these fun stop signs on a tongue depressor stick, on one side it reads STOP and on the other side it reads BREATHE. They are a lot of fun to use at the office, with your kids, coworkers and, of course, for ourselves! Sometimes it is that simple. And as you and I both know simple is not always easy. Stress gets a bad rap and I want to help you start to change the way you view stress and specifically how your body responds to stress!

Believe it or not, stress may not be the villain it’s made out to be. In small, short-term doses, stress can give an athlete the competitive edge or a public speaker the enthusiasm to project optimally. It can actually boost the immune system.

But chronic stress over time—the kind commonly encountered in daily life, such as work overload, financial difficulties, marital problems—can have significant negative effects on nearly every system of the body, suppressing the immune system and ultimately manifesting as an illness.

The danger occurs when stress becomes persistent and consistent, a way of life. Chronic stress raises the risk of viral infection and diabetes. It can trigger severe problems for asthmatics, lead to gastrointestinal issues and cause high blood pressure, which brings an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

To get a handle on this silent adversary, you need to first recognize that you are chronically stressed. Here are four kinds of warning signs:

Cognitive symptoms include problems with memory, an inability to focus, or feeling worried or negative all the time.

Emotional symptoms can include feeling moody, lonely, overwhelmed, unhappy or depressed.

Physical symptoms might include constant aches and pains, nausea, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.

Behavioral symptoms might range from severe changes in sleeping or eating patterns to turning to bad coping habits such as smoking or drinking.

Your ability to successfully navigate stress depends on factors such as, quality of relationships, general outlook on life, emotional intelligence and genetics. But the impact of stress accumulates. Just because you appear to tolerate stress well now doesn’t mean it won’t sneak up on you later.

Besides exercise, sleep and healthy eating, here are a few other ways to help protect your health.

Make friends with your stress response. Most often, you see your stress signs as bad, but what if you could use those to meet the challenges and stress in your life? When you do this, your body perceives this as a good thing— even your heart agrees as the cells respond to this as if they are experiencing joy or courage instead of a life threatening threat. So take a gentle breath in, as well as out when you meet stress in your everyday life at home, work, or on the go.

Seek activities or projects that make you feel good. For some, it’s taking a bath, for others its racing three-wheelers. Determine what’s important to you and create a lifestyle that embraces and supports you.

Strive for empowered thinking. While you can’t necessarily control a system, another person’s behavior or others’ impressions of you, you are always in control of your thoughts, actions, values and choices.

Enjoy yourself more. Find the places, people and circumstances that authentically bring you delight, and insist on giving them a place in your life. Increasing joy can add years to your life.

A little bit of stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But when it’s constant and negative, our minds and bodies can pay a hefty price. Prevention truly is the best medicine.

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