“Doc, I feel stressed out. Is this hurting my health?”

Dave works hard. Like most of us, he performs best when he is under certain amount of stress. Dave strives for excellence in everything he does. This certainly creates stress.

Work is not the only source of stress for most people. The pressures of modern day life keep everybody under stress. It has become part of our daily life.

Stress is an individual reaction to threats –either real or perceived.

Acute stress is in the nature of “fight or flight” or stress of major life events. Chronic stress is day-to-day stress which builds up over a period of time. Both can have long term consequences, writes Dr Bruce McEwen, Ph.D., in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Individuals who are chronically stressed exhibit fatigue, lack of energy, irritability, demoralization, and hostility. It is estimated that 60 percent of patients seen by family physicians have stress related health problems.

Sometimes stress is good. It energizes you. It can supply that zest for living.

“Doc, how does my body respond to stress?”

Dr. Bruce McEwen describes our body’s normal response to stress as ALLOSTASIS – the ability to achieve stability through change. This is critical to our survival.

The body provides this stability by activating four systems – nervous, cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems.

Our capacity to respond to stress depends on two things: 1) how we perceive a particular situation, 2) general state of our physical health.

Whether one perceives a situation as a threat, either psychological or physical, is crucial in determining the behavioral and the physiologic response, writes Dr. McEwen. The ability to adjust to repeated stress is also determined by the way one perceives a situation.

Physical condition of our body is important to combat adverse effects of stress. Rich diet, use of tobacco, alcohol, and lack of exercise can exacerbate chronic stress.

Body responds to stress by turning on an adaptive response and then shutting off this response when the threat is gone. If the system is inefficient in shutting off the response then the body is overexposed to stress hormones. This is not good.

Stress hormones cause anxiety, increase the heart rate (palpitation), increase blood pressure (hypertension), and increase blood sugar level. Repeated exposure to stress hormones may lead to heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Repeated stress also affects brain function (memory loss), and suppresses immune system (compared to acute stress where immune system is enhanced).

Dr. McEwen says that in laboratory animals, inefficient response to stress is due to the aging process. But this has not been proven in humans. It is possible that the ALLOSTATIC system wears out or becomes exhausted over a lifetime due to repeated exposure to stress.

“Doc, what can I do to combat stress?” asks Dave.

One has to learn coping skills, recognize one’s own limitations, take time off and relax. Eat a low fat diet, quit smoking and exercise regularly.

Dr. Peter Hanson, author of “The Joy of Stress” writes: Strive to maximize success by investing your energy and time in all four quadrants of your life – financial sufficiency, personal happiness, sound health, and respect on the job. Earn the respect of your peers, the loyalty of your friends, and the love of your children and spouse. Be spontaneous. Be funny.

It’s all mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it don’t matter. So don’t worry, be happy! Dave smiles and leaves the room humming…don’t worry….be happy…….

(This series of articles explore the health problems of Dave and his family. They are composite characters of a typical family with health problems.)

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