Stress & Health
By Dr. Oren Gersten
On July 14th twelve engaged citizens, a health coach, and a primary care doctor met virtually to discuss the impact of stress on health. This meeting, “Stress Reduction as Medicine,” was part of a free and open community forum dedicated to improved health through lifestyle change.
For those disappointed to have missed it, worry not! The tips below encompass many of the important points. Also, the community forum series will continue with “Food as Medicine” in the Fall.
WHAT IS IT?
From a medical perspective a body experiences stress when we expose it to an unwanted stimulus. This could be heat, cold, fear, anger, illness, toxins, sun damage, or sleep deprivation just to name a few. Being dynamic, organisms adapt to stress in many ways. The simplest way is to avoid it. We see this when we apply a noxious stimulus to even the simplest organism – it moves away (assuming it can move).
For humans, the solution may not be so simple. For acute stresses, such as touching a hot stove, the response is straight forward. A nervous impulse causes a person to retract their hand from the stove in a matter of milliseconds. The area then feels pain causing the person to attend to the area. Blood flow increases and immune cells begin to repair damaged tissue. Although no one wishes to burn their hand, the process to fix it is an “adaptive” type of stress.
Contrast this to a different type of stress, such as that caused by chronic illness. Diabetes, hypertension, inflammatory diseases, and poor nutrition all put strain on the body. The body reacts to the stresses in predictable ways – hardening arteries, storing excess energy as fat, and increase in pain signals for example. A lot of our medical care focuses on resolving these stresses on the body by reversing and curing disease.
When most people think of stress, they likely think of the psychological elements such as chest tightness, anxiety, irritability, and trouble sleeping. Interestingly, these feelings all have physiological underpinnings. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol increase heart rate, alter mood, and drown out sleep signals. Although the experience of stress is mainly psychological, the mechanism is physiological.
We live in a world where there will always be stressors. If we take the hot stove as an example, certain stress responses may even be adaptive. However, for many people the chronic stress of work, home life, money, and illness is maladaptive. If we don’t implement strategies to manage stress it can easily overwhelm us.
Here are five evidenced based tools that may help bring down your stress levels:
1. Make time for a daily mindfulness practice such as mediation, journaling, or even mindful eating.
2. Exercise! Not only is it good for your body but it helps to counteract the buildup of some of those maladaptive stress hormones.
3. Spend time in nature. Anything from stepping outside for a breath of fresh air to a long hike can be beneficial.
4. Stay connected with friends and family, especially those you feel comfortable talking to about your life stressors.
5. Ask for professional advice if you are feeling overwhelmed. A doctor, counselor, or coach can all be great resources to help you come up with a stress management plan.
Oren Gersten is a board-certified family doctor who brings his passion for connecting and caring for people to his private practice, Portland Direct Primary Care, at 27 Ocean Street, #3, South Portland.
Reach him at (207) 618-9792 or visit PortlandDirectCare.com.