January is named for the mythical Roman two-faced god, Janus, who looks forward to new beginnings and backward in reflection and resolution. Janus is the perfect time to catch our breath, which I now find myself doing following a year during which life overwhelmed me. `
Fixing up an aesthetically neglected home, my mother’s mental decline and death, learning a new job, adjusting to a new way of life after a divorce and cross-country move, nursing a physically and mentally injured dog back to health, and the loss of a young friend to suicide left me searching for ways to cope.
I turned to a trusted professional licensed counselor and freed up as much time for myself as possible. I let go of unhealthy habits, people, and situations that added extra stress to my life.
Now, I begin each day with expressions of gratitude and the simple but powerful serenity prayer. I surround myself with family and friends who renew my spirit and reassure me with their love and acceptance that I am doing ok.
Perhaps you, too, are feeling overwhelmed.
Life comes at each of us differently, but our bodies are wired to respond to stress similarly. Still, there are things we can do to minimize the negative impacts of stress and, in some cases, prevent it.
Fight or flight
Stress is a normal reaction that happens to everyone. The human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. Our brain’s primary function is to keep us alive, and a complex but effective response, often referred to as the fight or flight response, allows us to react quickly to acute stress by increasing our heart rate and breathing. Our pupils are dilated to assist us in becoming more visually aware of our surroundings by allowing more light into our eyes. Blood flow is increased to the muscles, brain, legs, and arms, and the body’s clotting ability increases to prevent excess blood loss in the event of injury. You can see that this is an extremely helpful response when faced with an immediate life-threatening event such as being chased by a predator.
The problem with our fight-or-flight response is that it isn’t always accurate. In today’s world, we have to cope with multiple drivers of stress, both real and imaginary. Our brain cannot tell the difference between real and perceived stress. Phobias are a good example of false triggering of this response.
Negative impacts of stress
When we experience long-term stress, continued activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body resulting in physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms. Some examples are aches and pains such as chest pain, trouble sleeping, high blood pressure, digestive problems, and a weakened immune system. Long-term stress can also lead to mental and emotional symptoms like anxiety or irritability, depression, panic attacks, and sadness.
Often, we cope with chronic stress by trying to manage it with unhealthy behaviors such as drinking alcohol too much or too often, gambling, overeating or developing an eating disorder, participating in compulsive behaviors such as sex, shopping or internet browsing, smoking, and using drugs.
Positive coping strategies
Through my medical training and life experiences, I have learned to embrace these positive coping strategies for stress:
- Exercise – Even a short walk can boost your mood.
- Set goals – Setting goals for your day, week, and month can help keep you from feeling overwhelmed. Narrowing your view can help you feel more in control of the moment and long-term tasks.
- Focus on gratitude – Begin each day by taking a moment to reflect on all the things you are grateful for.
- Focus on achievement – End each day by reflecting on what you accomplished, not what you didn’t get done.
- Seek counseling – Consider talking with a therapist or a healthcare provider about your symptoms.
Some ways to prevent stress include daily strategies to help prepare your body to cope better during highly stressful events. These include relaxation activities such as reading, participating in hobbies or volunteer work, meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga. Many programs are available online, in smartphone apps, and at our local gyms and community centers.
Taking good care of our bodies by eating a healthy diet, exercising, spending time outdoors daily, and getting enough sleep is vital to preventing stress.
Accept that you can’t control everything. Learn to say no to additional responsibilities when you feel overwhelmed or stressed.
Stay connected with people who keep you calm, make you happy, provide you with emotional support, and help you with practical things so that stress doesn’t become overwhelming.
NEXT TIME: You may have heard people refer to Dry January. In our next Health Matters, we will discuss one of the most common and unhealthy ways of dealing with stress, excessive drinking.
About the author: Tracy Backer is a Registered Nurse who has worked in the medical field for 39 years. Her specialty is critical care nursing. She is employed by Habersham Medical Center in Demorest. A University of North Georgia Nursing School graduate and Habersham County native, Tracy recently returned home to Northeast Georgia from California. She joins the Now Habersham team as a medical columnist for Your Health Matters. She can be reached at [email protected].