It’s not the stress that’s killing you, it’s how you handle the stress.
“Stress is actually our individual reaction to change,” says Ann Wilder, the executive director of behavioral health services at Baton Rouge General Medical Center. “It isn’t necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It just is.”
Many Americans — about one-quarter, according to a 2015 survey by the American Psychological Association — are “highly stressed.” And high stress can affect your health, Wilder says.
Every stressful thought releases chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol into the brain, she says, and these stress hormones “begin to break our bodies down.”
“We have high blood pressure,” Wilder says. “We have stomach issues. It even impacts our blood sugar and metabolism. If someone stays under stress for a long period of time, they actually get their DNA impacted. We want to prevent that.”
Wilder, who sometimes teaches educational seminars on handling stress, has these tips on coping with stress and staying healthy:
Find the cause . The first step to escaping stress is to identify its cause. Sometimes that’s more difficult than it sounds.
Getting stuck in traffic may trigger an emotional outburst, but the root of the stress could be a conversation with your spouse or a deadline at work.
“It is never apparent,” Wilder says. “That is 85 to 90 percent of the issue — most people never realize they are stressed.”
Once you identify the stressor, you can decide how to take action, Wilder says, and your brain will cease releasing harmful stress hormones.
Stay in the moment . Worrying about the future can overwhelm anyone. Aging parents, growing children and high-mileage cars can crowd your mind and raise your blood pressure.
Instead of dreading the future, Wilder recommends you focus on today.
“That is a huge gift to ourselves and to everyone else,” Wilder says. “That is very hard to do, but we have got to learn to do that, especially when we have so many things coming at us.”
Give your car needed preventative maintenance, keep tabs on your parents’ health or put away a little money in savings. Just worrying does nothing but add stress to your life.
Seek a new perspective . When work deadlines or financial needs pile up, Wilder encourages you to step back.
Write down your issues in a journal or seek help from a counselor. Writing down the stressful situation can help you break it down to small, achievable parts. Visiting a counselor can give you fresh eyes, Wilder says.
“A lot of times these messages are so deep in our subconscious that we just can’t see them without the help of an objective person,” she says. “That extra person who is objective, they see similar things every day.”
Breathe. Or doodle. Develop a your own way of dealing with stress hormones when you feel them pulse through your body at a tense time.
Some doodle on a notepad during a meeting. Wilder passes on the example of a woman who threw a “party in her head” that helped her deal with tough times at work.
Wilder recommends conscious breathing, which can “immediately change your state,” she says.
“Begin to breathe, inhale in your nose, exhale slowly through your mouth,” Wilder says. “You can do it where no one knows what you’re doing.”
Concentrate on a pleasant activity. For many, exercise helps with stress. However, you don’t have to jog or swim or ride a bike.
Find something that takes every bit of your concentration.
“If you don’t like to exercise, it’s going to be more stress to force yourself to go for a walk. Anything that a person does that takes all of their concentration can be a stress releaser. For some people, that can be cleaning the house, and for some people that can be gardening.
That could be exercise. That could be reading a book. It could be holding the baby or putting the baby to sleep.”