Navigating Stress and Wellness: Understanding the Impact and Coping Strategies

 

“I feel as though years of stress and daily panic attacks may have taken a toll on my heart. This thought is distressing and only adds to my anxiety, creating a vicious cycle. I’m worried about causing further harm to my organs, but even thinking about it is stressful. I feel trapped, fearing that damage may already be done.”

 

In this corner of the internet, we’re all about sharing stories, exploring life’s twists and turns, and supporting one another through both the highs and lows. The above question is a real-life question that resonates with many people. We know that stress affects the body, but how, why, and what can you do to manage stress?

 

In this blog post, I will explain how I would help you if you came to me with this concern. Although we’d spend more time together than you will reading this, I’ll give a brief description of each part of the formula.

 

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What is Stress?

 

Initially. I’ll check you have a thorough understanding of stress and what happens to your body when it enters the stressed state.

 

A stressor is anything that disrupts your body’s allostatic balance, and the stress response is your body’s way of restoring allostatic balance. This involves the secretion of specific hormones, the inhibition of others, and activation of parts of the nervous system. Remarkably, regardless of the stressor—whether physical, such as injury or hunger, or psychological—you activate the same stress-response mechanism.

 

Allostasis is the way your body maintains stability (homeostasis) through physiological or behavioural changes in response to stressors. Unlike homeostasis, which seeks to maintain a constant internal environment, allostasis involves adapting to changing conditions to meet your body’s needs. This adaptation may include alterations in hormone levels, heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism, and other physiological parameters to ensure survival and well-being during challenges. Allostasis allows the body to respond dynamically to stressors, helping maintain stability and resilience in varying environments.

 

During times of stress, your body prioritises immediate survival over long-term projects, such as digestion, growth, and reproduction. This redirection of energy ensures you maintain vital functions while facing emergencies, like avoiding danger or fighting off threats. The stress-response system pauses the immune response to focus resources on immediate challenges, rather than long-term health concerns. Moreover, stress can dull the perception of pain, enhancing your ability to cope with physical injuries during critical situations. Interestingly, cognitive and sensory skills sharpen, aiding problem-solving and situational awareness. This adaptive stress-response mechanism, often referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response, optimises your body’s resources to cope with immediate stressors, reflecting the remarkable adaptability of human physiology.

 

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Can Stress Make You Sick?

 

You fear there is irremediable damage to your heart and other organs due to constant stress. Ironically, this fear causes you more stress, potentially doing further damage. At the very least, it prevents you from living in a state of balance. The simple answer is yes, stress can make you sick. Chronic stress causes internal damage. You probably know this already, and it’s why you feel afraid. We don’t need to dwell on how you’re damaging your body by living in a state of stress. It will not achieve anything. Instead, we recognise that you’re doing something about it. Taking steps in the right direction, and we’ll work together to help you live a life without chronic stress.

 

It is important to note that stress is not bad for your body. Stress is a normal physiological response, with a process that your body evolved to move through. Chronic stress is the problem. Chronic stress refers to a prolonged state of psychological or emotional strain that persists over an extended period. Unlike acute stress, which is short-term and often linked to specific events or situations, chronic stress can persist for weeks, months, or even years.

 

How to Manage Stress

 

The question at the beginning of this blog post doesn’t tell us whether there is a specific trigger for the stress, but suggests the stress is either managed or manageable. However, they are left with recurrent anxiety about the effect of that stress. One scientifically proven way to reduce and manage stress is to redirect your worries onto something less threatening.

 

In the 1960s, a group of psychiatrists conducted a study on parents coping with their children’s terminal cancer, examining their glucocorticoid levels as a measure of stress. They found significant variance in glucocorticoid levels among parents, with some exhibiting high levels, while others remained within the normal range. Through in-depth interviews, researchers identified several coping styles associated with lower glucocorticoid levels.

 

 

 

Glucocorticoids are a class of steroid hormones produced by the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys. The most well-known glucocorticoid is cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone” because its levels increase in response to stressors.

Glucocorticoids help the body cope with stress by increasing glucose levels in the bloodstream, which provides energy for the body’s response to the stressor. They also have anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects, which help dampen the body’s immune response during times of stress.

In addition to their role in stress response, glucocorticoids help regulate metabolism, control blood sugar levels, and influence memory formation. However, chronic elevation of glucocorticoid levels, such as in conditions like Cushing’s syndrome or chronic stress, can have detrimental effects on health, including weight gain, muscle weakness, immune suppression, and cognitive impairment.

 

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One key finding was that parents who could redirect their major worries onto less threatening concerns had lower stress hormone levels. For example, those who could reframe their anxiety into manageable concerns about their child’s comfort showed lower glucocorticoid levels compared to those who remained fixated on worst-case scenarios. Another factor was denial: parents who maintained hope during periods of remission and focused on the child’s apparent healthiness, rather than worrying about relapse, had lower glucocorticoid levels. Additionally, the presence of a religious framework to rationalise the illness correlates with lower stress responses. Parents who perceived their child’s illness as a divine test and believed God chose them for this special task reported lower stress levels compared to those who rejected religious explanations. The study highlights the importance of coping strategies, such as redirecting worries, maintaining hope, and finding meaning in religious beliefs in managing stress associated with catastrophic illness.

 

Redirecting Worries: Instead of fixating on worst-case scenarios, try to redirect your worries onto less threatening concerns. This involves acknowledging anxieties, but reframing them into more manageable thoughts or focusing on practical actions you can take.

 

Maintaining Hope: It’s important to maintain hope and focus on the positive aspects of your situation. Rather than constantly worrying about the possibility of ill health, express gratitude for the wellness you do have and engage in activities that bring joy and fulfilment.

 

Finding Meaning in Religious Beliefs: For those with religious or spiritual beliefs, finding meaning can provide comfort and strength during challenging times. This may involve viewing the illness as part of a larger divine plan, or finding solace in the belief that you are not alone in your struggles.

 

To have religious or spiritual beliefs, you do not need to subscribe to an official religion. Spirituality is the belief in something larger than oneself, is personal and varies greatly from person to person. It often involves seeking meaning, purpose, and transcendence beyond the material world. One aspect of spirituality involves belief in a higher power or divine force that transcends human understanding. This may take the form of belief in a specific deity or god, or it could involve a more abstract concept of the universe, nature, or interconnectedness of all things. For example, some people find spiritual connection and meaning in the beauty and complexity of nature, seeing it as a manifestation of something larger and more profound than yourself. Spirituality can also involve practices such as prayer, meditation, ritual, or contemplation, to develop inner peace, purpose, and harmony with the world.

 

By incorporating these coping strategies into your daily life, you can better manage stress levels every day.

 

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WOLFF, CARL T. M.D.*; FRIEDMAN, STANFORD B. M.D.*; HOFER, MYRON A. M.D.; MASON, JOHN W. M.D.. Relationship Between Psychological Defenses and Mean Urinary 17-Hydroxycorticosteroid Excretion Rates: I. A Predictive Study of Parents of Fatally Ill Children. Psychosomatic Medicine 26(5):p 576-591, September 1964.