Chronic stress management
Many believe that their lives are under constant stress, and perhaps they are not far from the truth. Urban life, in general, is a test of resistance to stress: from early morning until late at night, urban inhabitants are surrounded by bustle, many strangers and various other people who are not always positive. Clusters of cars pollute the roadways and create a tense atmosphere of perpetual hurry. Even at home it is sometimes impossible to fully relax, because of the same traffic noise and smell of exhaust gases, the TV set that informs about economic and political turmoil or crimes. Certainly, not all are able to spend their short leisure time with health benefitting activities, as leisure is more often associated with a state of inactivity and sometimes with the abuse of food and alcohol. As a result, doctors are more often faced with a variety of diseases caused by stress.
From a medical point of view, stress represents a condition of the body, in which all of its components are under tension. Stress may occur both due to the negative impact of environmental factors and with expression of positive emotions (for example, creative inspiration).
Causes of stress
Factors leading to stress are called stressors. They are unique for each individual — what one might see as a surprise or with a smile is a stress factor to another. Stress occurrence is also influenced by genetic predispositions to such reactions, as well as the presence of certain diseases increases its likelihood (e.g. anxiety disorders, diabetes mellitus, autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus, or diseases of the thyroid gland).
Other important factors are previous human experience, the novelty of the situation, the intensity and duration of stress factors. It is fair to say that we face causes of stress each day, but the probability of stress response is also affected by our lifestyle, state of health, and mental fitness.
Symptoms of stress
How does one determine whether a person is under stress? The main component of the stress response is anxiety, often for no apparent reason. It can be accompanied by unmotivated depressive moods (i.e. depression), sleep disturbances (insomnia at night and/or daytime sleepiness). Persons in a state of stress cope less effectively with their work responsibilities, quickly get tired and are often distracted or irritable.
One’s physical condition may also be indicative of stress. Rapid heartbeat and breathing rate, blood pressure elevation, back pain, abdominal pains of unspecified nature, headaches, loss of appetite and decreased immunity are all signs of stress. Unfortunately, there is no such symptom, the presence of which would exactly point to the fact that a person is under stress; therefore, self-diagnosis is unlikely. Consulting your doctor is needed if you report any such symptoms.
It is better to start with a therapist’s consultation by performing an examination to identify chronic diseases of the cardiovascular and digestive systems and to assess the hormone level. This is necessary to exclude the presence of such diseases as arterial hypertension, diabetes mellitus, gastritis, hypothyroidism, atherosclerosis. In order to clarify the state of health, the consultation of other professionals, such as a neurologist, endocrinologist, will also be needed. Doctors will likely prescribe the performance of a blood test, urinalysis, and electrocardiogram.
If all tests ordered by physicians are within the normal range and the patient’s condition is still far from satisfactory, doctors may recommend seeing a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist.
These professionals, when acquainted with the results of the examinations, may already establish the diagnosis of chronic stress. Sometimes the psychiatrist refers the patient to additional tests, such as electroencephalography (EEG) or psychological counseling. This is necessary for the exclusion of mental and neurological disorders such as epilepsy and panic disorders. It is clear that, without the participation of doctors, one cannot say for sure whether or not a person suffers from a stress disorder. The risk of self-diagnosis is that by attributing ailments to stress, it is possible to miss the start of serious illnesses, including cancer.
Treatment of chronic stress
Physicians who have determined the existence of chronic stress will help point to ways of dealing with it. The treatment usually includes a drug component, i.e. drugs that help the body cope with increased workload. These are the well-known vitamins, especially of the B-group, as well as adaptogens, which include medicinal plants (Siberian ginseng, Schisandra, golden root, sea buckthorn, etc.) and drugs of animal origin, such as apilac (produced by bees). These medicines are sold in pharmacies without prescription, but also have side effects and complications: for instance, apilac is quite a strong allergen, Siberian ginseng may cause insomnia, hence why the decision regarding drug administration is to be taken by the doctor.
For significant sleep problems, doctors may prescribe sleeping pills. If the patient has a strongly expressed anxiety, mild tranquilizers can be used and, in cases of prevalence of depressive symptoms, antidepressants are usually prescribed.
When selecting a drug, the patient’s lifestyle is taken into account. If your work requires high concentration or if you drive a car, you must report this during the visit to the doctor. Also, be sure to inform the doctor about known allergic reactions, if any.
Separately, prohibition of alcohol intake and of narcotic drugs during treatment must be mentioned. Combining alcohol with tranquilizers and sleeping pills may be fatal, resulting in severe poisoning (bordering death) or psychosis. In addition, the use of alcohol and drugs increases stress itself (although, on a subjective level, some persons may see improvements) and makes worthless all specialists’ efforts.
That being said, drugs are not the main, but rather an auxiliary treatment for stress. Mere removal of symptoms is insufficient without teaching people to confront their own stressors. For this reason, psychotherapeutic techniques are employed, joined under the name of “anti-stress psychotherapy” based on hypnosis. The disadvantage of these techniques is that they require significant concentration, which cannot be maintained by all patients under stress. In relation to this, various meditation methods (e.g. mantra, deep breathing) have become popular.
Stress related to professional activities can be reduced by proper work organization and rest. For example, during the working day it is useful to take some light exercises (alternated stretching and the muscles of the head, neck and shoulders, squeezing a tennis ball, and others). It is advisable that rest should not be a passive waste of time, and that it is full of interesting and useful activities. This can be any hobby, a little trip, going to the gym, spa procedures, meeting with friends in the countryside (in this case, remember the harmful effects of alcohol).
Meals should help the body recover and not place undue burden on the gastrointestinal tract. Simple dishes — whether steamed, baked or stewed — are preferred. Give priority to fresh food; don’t use many spices or large quantities of meat and fatty foods. Eating should be at regular intervals; light snacks between meal times for removal of the hunger feeling are welcome.
Complications of stress
Constant exposure to stress factors and untreated, chronic stress may cause body malfunction. As previously mentioned, stress is a condition in which heartbeat and breathing are increased to ensure a greater blood flow and oxygen transfer to vital organs; meanwhile, the blood supply to the digestive system is reduced, which causes disorders. Stress hormone levels (adrenaline, hydrocortisone, insulin) are increased. Because of the long periods of secretion of these hormones, glands become depleted, resulting in adrenal failure and diabetes mellitus. A common complication is also arterial hypertension. In men with long-acting stress factors, potency reduction may be possible. To prevent these complications, a doctor should be consulted promptly and his/her recommendations should be followed thoroughly.
Stress prevention is quite simple and is known to almost everyone, but unfortunately, not all trouble themselves with it. This means a correct lifestyle, including the rational organization of work and leisure time, maintaining a good physical form, healthy eating, and no excesses.
Optimism, the ability to switch from negative thoughts, physical exercise, having a hobby, a change of scenery are guaranteed to reduce the risk of stress. Even if you’ll be spending more time in fresh air or watch a comedy that makes you laugh or take an aromatic bath, you will already feel relief, and the stress hormone levels will be reduced.
Live fully and enjoy life! Remember that any health problem can be solved, if it is not ignored and medical help comes in time!