by Munawar Hayat, MD
You were in a minor fender bender on the way to work. You’ve gained five more pounds instead of dropping the five you gained during the holidays. The presentation you’re supposed to give next week got moved up—to tomorrow.
Yep, stress is part of our daily lives. It not only makes us feel bad, it does bad things to our bodies. Did you know that in highly stressful times your real age can be as much as 32 years older than your calendar age?
“When the body is under stress, it releases the hormone cortisol,” says Munawar Hayat, MD, with USMD Alliance Fort Worth. “Cortisol can affect many parts of your body. If you’re stressed out every day for six months, you’re going to have high levels of cortisol for six months. That’s going to cause high levels of sugar in your blood that can lead to glucose intolerance—which can lead to obesity and diabetes. Your blood pressure will go up, as well. And if it stays high for months on end, then you could prematurely develop hypertension—which is one of the most significant risk factors of cardiovascular disease.”
High blood pressure, rapid heart rate, chest pain, difficulty breathing, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, anger, frustration—Dr. Hayat says they’re all the unpleasant symptoms of stress. Knowing how to cope with pressures at home and work is important to your physical, mental and emotional well-being. Here are some tips to help you decompress.
Get your heart pumping.
Nothing helps diffuse stress like cardiovascular exercise. But you don’t need to run a marathon.
“Whether it’s walking, going for a swim, doing yoga for 30 minutes, or going to the gym—whatever type of physical activity you enjoy doing is good,” says Dr. Hayat. “It not only helps reduce stress, but improves overall brain function.”
For example, a brisk walk that raises the heart rate releases endorphins and Atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP)—a hormone that reduces pain, induces euphoria and helps control the brain’s response to stress and anxiety.
Meditate every now and Zen.
Today, our daily lives are busier than ever. “We work long hours and then we come home to a busy home environment that can also be stressful,” adds Dr. Hayat. “Taking a few minutes to clear your mind and breathe slowly gives your brain time to recharge, and that can help lower stress. Meditating a couple of minutes several times a day is very helpful.”
Studies show that quiet reflection lowers blood pressure and reduces fear and anger. People who meditate regularly have 80 percent less heart disease and 50 percent less cancer than people who don’t meditate. All you need is a quiet place indoors or outside where you be comfortable. You can meditate while sitting, lying down, standing or walking—just maintain a comfortable posture that lets you relax and focus your attention. You may wish to visualize pleasant images, silently or softly chant a word or phrase, or simply focus on the rhythm of your breathing.
Listen to your favorite tunes.
“Music soothes the brain,” says Dr. Hayat. “Sometimes listening to music—whatever genre you enjoy—can help you calm down lower stress levels.” Create a mix of songs that make you happy. And if you want to sleep better, turn off the TV and listen to music before bed.
Breathing slowly can help reduce stress levels and physiologically calm your body—especially if stress has reached a point where it’s causing anxiety and panic attacks. Take in slow, deep breaths. When you breathe deeply, you inhale more oxygen. The more oxygen you get, the less tense and anxious you feel.
Discover the power of touch.
Humans are very interactive,” says Dr. Hayat. “When we lose that sense of touching, our stress levels go higher.” In contrast, the brain releases oxytocin, the “feel good” hormone, when we hug another person or a pet. “Psychological Science” reveals hugs reduce stress and our fear of mortality. No wonder hospitals, university campuses, and other organizations are turning to therapy animals to reduce stress. Similarly, some workplaces are now dog-friendly.
There’s an old say, “Laughter is good for the soul.” So don’t hold back. Chuckle, giggle, let loose—laughter lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, and boosts your immune system. It also triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.
What if you can’t shake stress?
“Everyone has a level of stress that they have to deal with every day,” Dr. Hayat acknowledges. “But if you notice that your stress levels are persistently high and you’re not enjoying life, you’re not happy, you’re not sleeping, you’re not eating or you’re eating too much, and it’s affecting your relationships with your family members and co-workers, then it’s something that you need to discuss with your primary care physician and other members of your health care team you may see on a regular basis.”
While conservative steps should always be tried first—exercise, lifestyle modification, breathing and avoiding stressful environments—Dr. Hayat says for individuals whose chronic stress is negatively affecting their quality of life, medications can help.
“Medication is a very important tool that should be used to help people who have severe stress and anxiety and depression,” he says. “However, it should be used very wisely and tailored for each patient. There’s not one medication that is right for all patients. Each medication has its own side effects, so we don’t always know which medication is going to be best for a patient. So, we have to try different medicines, adjust the dosages. Sometimes it can take months to find the right medicine and get the dosage right for the patient.”
Most important, managing stress requires a holistic, multi-faceted approach. Remember, you don’t have to tough it out on your own. A talk with your doctor is a positive first step.
Munawar Hayat, MD is board certified in family medicine with a distinction in sports medicine. He earned his medical degree from St. George University School in Grenada and completed his residency in family and community medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.