A Healthier Tomorrow – Managing the stress we are facing now
Imagine a Healthier Tomorrow
By Alison Page, CEO Western Wisconsin Health
Stress. We all live with it every day. Stress can be positive or negative, depending on the situation. Positive stressors (called eustress) might include anticipation of happy occasions like an upcoming wedding, a vacation, or the holidays. On the other hand, negative stress (called distress) results in the full-blown stress response. If people experience negative stress for a long period of time, it leads to very negative health consequences.
Stress activates your sympathetic nervous system, stimulating the release of stress hormones throughout your body. These hormones give you super energy and cause other changes in the body such as the “fight or flight” response.
The “fight or flight” response makes your heart beat faster. You might feel very nervous, making it difficult to breathe. Short term, the “fight or flight” response causes changes that allow you to handle sudden stressful events. When you face fear — or even recall a stressful or frightening event from the past — the resulting hormonal changes super-charge your body to a state of high arousal. This prepares you for action and is very useful when you face short-term stressful situations.
But with long-term stress, stress hormones, like cortisol, stay elevated over time, there is a gradual and steady stream of harmful changes to the body. Long-term stress can suppress the immune system, which leads to the development of all kinds of ailments and diseases.
We are living in stressful times. Today, in addition to dealing with normal life stressors, people are dealing with multiple, long-term stressors: The COVID-19 pandemic, disrupted or interrupted employment, social and racial tension, and political divisions. These stressors, if not managed, will impact your health negatively.
If you do not manage your stress you will notice you become irritable, short-tempered, or unable to concentrate on tasks. You may have interrupted sleep. You may react by eating junk food (Remember – desserts is stressed spelled backward)! You may drink heavily or use other drugs to try to deal with your fear and anxiety. We are seeing all these responses to long-term stressors in our families, in our workplaces, and in our communities.
The good news is you do have options. It is possible to manage stress and keep it from damaging your health, your relationships, and your life. Here are three, not-so-easy tips for dealing with the stress we are facing right now.
First, take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise and get enough sleep. Most importantly, do what you can to avoid getting or spreading COVID-19. Follow the recommendations from public health experts. If you would like more information go to www.dhs.wisconsin.gov.
Second, identify the source(s) of the stress and address it if you can. The current stress people are experiencing related to social and political issues can be especially challenging to deal with. One helpful tool I have used is to try to identify the “false dichotomy” behind the issue if one exists. A false dichotomy exists when we see an issue as an either/or situation. This is rarely true. For example, you may be stressed out when you think you must choose containing the pandemic (to prevent illness and save lives) OR opening the economy (to prevent people from committing suicide or drinking themselves to death). This is a false choice. Instead, try to channel your thoughts to be inclusive of both perspectives being presented in the dichotomy. For example, we all want people to be healthy, AND we all want a strong, open economy. We do not have to choose preventing the spread of COVID-19 OR supporting the economy. Instead, we can ask, “How can we contain the pandemic AND support the economy?” Questions like this are challenging to answer, but you will find the approach much less stressful, and more productive in the long run.
If you cannot address the source of the stress, or just do not have the energy to do so, then avoid it as much as possible. Just step away; take a pause. Turn off the TV, don’t read the tweets, don’t engage in dialogue that raises your stress level.
The third strategy to deal with the stress we are facing now is to focus on positive things and engage in positive behaviors. Put simply, think, and do nice things. This is especially impactful for your sense of wellbeing and calm if you do those nice things for people you may not even know. I have an older sister who has been a wonderful role model for many. She embodies kindness, caring and calm. A little phrase she lives by is, “Do small deeds with great love.” We can all help each other get through these stressful times by taking her advice. We will build our healthier tomorrow, together.