Updated: Nov 9, 2019
Stress is natural, but we live in extremely stressful times, and your health is at risk if you don’t take steps to control it
Over 8 million people die each year because of mental health-related illnesses. It’s not a mental illness/disorder that kills them but the insidious stress that builds up as a result of what is happening in their bodies. The psychological aspects of the illness are what’s most apparent (and not everyone has a diagnosed illness), but the underlying damage silently destroying health may not be fully realized.
Stress appears to be one of the prime movers of diminished health. It is the thief in the night that robs our health without our realizing it. Undoubtedly, this silent killer isn’t seen because the visible signs are too quickly diagnosed as mental health issues. The answer is often a prescription for a medication.
But stress affects every system of our bodies, and death can be the result. Hypertension, aka high blood pressure, is a significant component of stress-related deaths. Treating anxiety or depression isn’t an adequate plan for promoting health.
Pharmaceuticals are only a part of what must be diagnosed and remediated. Treating stress-related illnesses in a piecemeal fashion, forgetting the psychological component, does little to serve the patient’s health.
Each year, The American Psychological Association produces a study on stress in America, and the results are startling this year. First, consider how stress affects us overall.
Where stress affects our bodies
A major concern for everyone is their heart health, and it is here where stress can be the most dangerous. It raises our blood pressure, which places an additional burden on the entire vascular system of our bodies.
Our heart, brain, and circulatory system are at considerable risk of heart attack, stroke, or blood clots. The burden may go unnoticed, and that’s why hypertension/high blood pressure is the “silent killer.” However, an overall feeling of stress is apparent to the individual who may fail to recognize it as a sign that medical help is needed.
But stress hits every aspect of our bodies and is of great concern to the medical profession. One example would be the production of stress hormones, primarily cortisol, which can cause physical damage throughout the body and must be brought under control.
Cortisol is the “fight or flight” hormone that protects us from danger, but anxiety may flood it into our bodies when no physical danger is present. It is this psychological aspect of hormone control, where we must establish a means of maintaining balance in our lives.
Where is the stress coming from in 2019?
Three major factors, currently, were noted in the study released by the APA. These included the presidential election, healthcare, and mass shootings.
Seventy percent of participants were concerned about mass shootings, which increased their level of stress. Almost 70% had concerns about healthcare and if it would be available to them in the future. Young adults were primarily concerned not about their health difficulties or insurance coverage as much as that of their parents, grandparents, and older Americans.
In addition to these three primary, overriding concerns causing increased stress, the study found that many were concerned about terrorism, climate change and global warming, and sexual harassment. The impact of discrimination was also of concern to one-quarter of the adults in the study. We know that discrimination is related to deadly stress-related illnesses.
Concerns about the volatility of the upcoming presidential election were shown by 56% of the adults in the 2019 study as opposed to 52% of the adults in the 2016 survey.
There was a marked disparity between those who identified their political affiliation, also. Sixty-two percent of Republicans expressed a belief that the country is on a path to being stronger, while Independents believed only 35% that it was going to get stronger, and 25% of Democrats thought a stronger country was imminent.
What can we do to protect ourselves?
The APA has recommended ways each of us can do more to manage stress brought on by the uncertainty now in our lives. Simple things can add up to essential changes in our health and outlook on life. They suggest:
“Be kind to yourself. Some people are better at dealing with uncertainties than others, so don’t beat yourself up if your tolerance for unpredictability is lower than a friend’s. Remind yourself that it might take time for the stressful situation to resolve, and be patient with yourself in the meantime.
Reflect on past successes. Chances are you’ve overcome stressful events in the past — and you survived! Give yourself credit. Reflect on what you did during that event that was helpful, and what you might like to do differently this time.
Develop new skills. When life is relatively calm, make a point to try things outside your comfort zone. From standing up to a difficult boss to trying a new sport, taking risks helps you develop confidence and skills that come in handy when life veers off course.
Limit exposure to news. When we’re stressed about something, it can be hard to look away. But compulsively checking the news only keeps you wound up. Try to limit your check-ins and avoid the news during vulnerable times of day, such as right before bedtime.
Avoid dwelling on things you can’t control. When uncertainty strikes, many people immediately imagine worst-case scenarios. Get out of the habit of ruminating on negative events.
Take your own advice. Ask yourself: If a friend came to me with this worry, what would I tell her? Imagining your situation from the outside can often provide perspective and fresh ideas.
Engage in self-care. Don’t let stress derail your healthy routines. Make efforts to eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. Many people find stress release in practices such as yoga and meditation.
Seek support from those you trust. Many people isolate themselves when they’re stressed or worried. But social support is important, so reach out to family and friends.
Control what you can. Focus on the things that are within your control, even if it’s as simple as weekly meal planning or laying out your clothes the night before a stressful day. Establish routines to give your days and weeks some comforting structure.
Ask for help. If you’re having trouble managing stress and coping with uncertainty on your own, ask for help. Psychologists are experts in helping people develop healthy ways to cope with stress. Find a psychologist in your area by using APA’s Psychologist Locator Service.”
Make a list of the suggestions and post it anywhere you’ll be sure to see it during the day. Read it often, and remind yourself what you CAN do and forget dwelling on those things out of your control. Don’t permit yourself to be a victim of stress.
While the listing from the APA didn’t mention exercise, we know that this is a vital link to good health. No, you don’t need to go to a gym to exercise because “greasing the groove” is the way to go.
Simple, easy-to-do exercise when you can is the key to successful healthy exercise. Walking is excellent, and so is lifting small weights occasionally, not three sets of 15 reps each, but a few when you can. Keep one in your desk drawer at work, at home, put a small dumbell near where you might watch TV. It’s all good for you.
You have more control than you may think. Use it to your advantage and do a good thing for your health and happiness and that of your loved ones.