BY COSHANDRA DILLARD
Everyone experiences it at times, but not everyone knows how to handle it: stress.
Stress alerts the body to danger and uncertainty. Body temperature and heart rate increase, breathing becomes faster and people are become ready to react to the challenge presented. It's known as the fight-or-flight response.
But staying in a prolonged fight-or-flight response takes a toll on health. In the past five years, 44 percent of Americans have reported an increase in psychological stress, according to a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Researchers assert that primary-care physicians should more often offer stress counseling.
In a study of 33,045 visits to a doctor between 2006 and 2009, primary-care physicians counseled patients about stress only 3 percent of the time even though stress was believed to have contributed to the patients' problems 60 to 80 percent of the time.
Stress is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, headaches, diabetes, depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, asthma, accelerated aging and premature death.
Stress “will take a toll on your body,” said Anne Hatfield, licensed clinical social worker at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler. “You will end up paying for it. If you don't start doing something about it along the way, whether it's in your home or in your work, then eventually, when you get to be 60 and 70, it's going to cause migraines and ulcers and there'll be physiological symptoms.”
Ms. Hatfield said always experiencing stress is not normal.
“We have gotten into a culture in our society where we think stress is normal. … We think, 'If I'm not really stressed, I must not be doing a good job,' and that's unfortunate. That's a part of our society and our culture. … That would be a paradigm shift for our culture, but it's possible. It does take us saying, 'This is not normal. This is not OK. I need it to be differently.'”
Ms. Hatfield isn't surprised by the study that suggests doctors should more often discuss stress issues with patients. At the health science center, it's her job to fill in the gap. She works with medical professionals who counsel patients.
She said post-traumatic stress disorder is becoming more common, not just among military veterans, but also among civilians, such as those who witness violence. Ms. Hatfield is unsure whether the increase is a result of PTSD happening more often or if the medical community knows more and is doing better at identifying the problem.
She said she uses cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients identify sources of stress. Patients under stress often have degrees of short-term memory loss or trouble concentrating.
“When your body is focused on the fight or flight, it's focused on that one trigger,” she said. “Then your memory doesn't work as well. That's exactly the problem with stress. It shuts down certain parts that the body is suppose to do all of the time, and it opens up others. We're supposed to have relaxation. There's supposed to be a stress-relaxation cycle going on in us all of the time.”
One way to relax is through sleep, which is something many Americans don't get enough. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50 to 70 million Americans have sleep-related disorders.
“We have fitful sleep,” Ms. Hatfield said. “We may drink or do drugs that mess up our sleep. Sleep apnea can take away our sleep. So, we don't have enough relaxation to keep all the different processes going.”
Ms. Hatfield said there are four A's to identifying sources of stress: avoid the stressor, alter the stress, adapt the stress or accept the stressor.
Positive ways of reducing stress include exercise, listening to music, aromatherapy, hot baths, massage and yoga.
“I think yoga is wonderful,” Ms. Hatfield said. “It forces relaxation. During the time folks are doing yoga, they're forcing that stress response to go down and the relaxation response to go up.”
Ms. Hatfield also emphasizes the benefits of deep breathing.
“You'll feel differently if you start focusing on your breathing and breathe deeply,” she said. “You will very quickly find something different in your body.”
Dawn Bridges, a Zumba instructor, relieves stress through prayer.
“I keep in mind that God is a big God,” she said. “He is able to bring good out of any situation. He can change or remedy the situation as well as comfort me in the midst of difficulty. I read scripture and devotion books to help me experience God's presence in my life. I also sing to lift my thoughts away from myself and toward God.”
Mrs. Bridges has had problems that were believed to be stress-related.
“I found I needed to change my diet and other factors to help me feel better physically,” she said. “Some of these changes were challenging but I knew I needed to get well.”
Consistent exercise helps her.
“There are times I am tired and don't want to exercise,” she said. “Without exception, I leave class sweaty and tired yet amazingly energized. I often tell my clients that the hardest part about exercise is the getting there — the gym, the park, the sidewalk, the road. Once one fights the mental battle and gets to the gym, the workout is going to happen. The rewards of exercise far exceed the sacrifice of time for the mind, body and spirit. The smiling faces of my clients after class is indisputable. The stress is less.”