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Healthy Headlines: What is stress doing to your body, and what can you do about it? 5 ways to reduce it

St. Elizabeth Healthcare

We all face stress — it’s a normal and natural part of life. However, when stress becomes chronic, it can affect your physical and mental health.

There are different types of stress:

Regular stress: family, work and daily responsibilities.

Negative stress: dramatic life changes, illness, death, divorce, loss of job.

Traumatic stress: major accident, life disruption, natural disaster.

After an unpredictable year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us feel the long-term physical and emotional effects of negative stress.

“Physical stress responses include headaches, muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, upset stomach and sleeping issues,” says Dr. Thom Bunnell, a Primary Care Physician at St. Elizabeth Physicians. “Emotional responses include feeling restless, anxious, overwhelmed and irritable — which we can all relate to.”

These stress responses can cause a significant impact on your behavior, from changed eating habits to drug or alcohol abuse and social withdrawal. The key is to be aware of these stress triggers — and your response to them.

“Everyone has a threshold for dealing with stress,” says Dr. Bunnell. “As long as your stressors are below that threshold, you’re ok. But when your stress level ratchets up over your threshold, you can start experiencing physical and emotional symptoms.”

5 Ways to Reduce Stress

Channel your stress into something positive by trying one of the following stress-reducers:

▪ Get moving — regular physical activity is one of the best ways to manage your stress level. Head out on a hike or hit the pavement for a long run. Holistic options like tai chi, yoga and massage are all great for reducing stress too.

▪ Use relaxation techniques — deep breathing and mediation are excellent ways to relax and reduce stress. If you have a hard time quieting your mind, try out a guided meditation on apps like Headspace or Peloton.

▪ Keep a sense of humor — the adage “laughter is the best medicine” actually holds true. From a simple smile to a deep belly laugh, keeping your sense of humor is a great way to lower your stress.

▪ Tap into a hobby — maybe you’ve always wanted to learn to surf or knit a blanket —now’s the time! A new hobby can add a different level of enjoyment to your daily life, and in turn, lower your stress levels. You can also plug back into an existing hobby like gardening, playing on a rec sports team or picking up a new book.

▪ Make an effort to be with people — when we’re feeling overwhelmed with stress, it’s easy just to withdraw. Fight the urge to isolate and make plans to spend time with family and friends who bring you joy.

Pandemic Re-entry Stress

Many of us are grappling with changing pandemic guidelines and new recommendations for returning to in-person work, summer vacations, camp and even school in the fall. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the stress and uncertainly ahead — but remember you’re in control.

“Part of our successful re-entry into “regular” life is knowing your comfort zones,” says Dr. Bunnell. “Gradually start expanding those thresholds to see what feels comfortable and doable.”

If you’re vaccinated and ready to head back to the gym or yoga studio, try it out.

However, if that activity causes you to feel overwhelming stress or anxiety, recognize that you might need to give yourself a little more time to get comfortable.

And remember: there is no “right” or “wrong” way to approach re-entry, as long as you’re vaccinated and using common sense. Let your gut be your guide and implement de-stressor techniques whenever possible to help you stay calm.

If you need help, make an appointment with your primary care physician.