Long-Term Stress, Consequences, and Management

If adapting to the pandemic over the past several months hasn’t been enough, 24-7 news coverage of deaths, sickness, and economic ruin could discourage even the most positive among us. In addition to dealing with the pandemic, we’ve been mired in one of the ugliest political seasons in decades. We also had devastating fires and storms toward the end of the summer. And then, when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, we witnessed in real-time an unthinkable attack on the U.S. Capitol.

If you have been feeling more than a little stressed lately, you’re not alone. However, how we cope with stress varies considerably among individuals. Some try to take appropriate steps to mitigate the harmful effects of long-term stress. Other people may try to hang on and just live through a stressful period. Still, others are trying to cope with out-of-control circumstances through self-medication (comfort food, excessive alcohol, or drugs).  Unfortunately, in the long-term, ignoring stress can contribute to serious health problems or death—especially as we get older.

The Problem with Too Much Stress

WebMD lists some of the more common symptoms of stress including frustration, feeling like your life is out-of-control or feeling overwhelmed, difficulty relaxing, avoiding others, upset stomach, aches and pains, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, and cold or sweaty hands and feet.

According to the Mayo Clinic, uncontrolled stress can lead to anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory or concentration problems. An article published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine went further to talk about the long-term effects of stress on the brain, “…it is now obvious that stress can cause structural changes in the brain with long-term effects on the nervous system.

Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D., and author of The XX Brain wrote, “Perhaps more than any other health risk, stress is the silent killer our society has yet to acknowledge fully. Those of us in the health field already recognize it as a major contributing factor in all leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, lung disease, and Alzheimer’s.”

Take Time to Manage Stress

To get started, Healthline offers 16 ways to reduce stress including exercise, cuddling, and deep breathing. If you search for stress reduction strategies, you’ll find a number of sites with consistent recommendations.

No matter what the weather, I try to at least take a walk outside each day. When I am especially stressed, I try to focus on gratitude. I pay attention to what I’m grateful to hear—especially the sound of various birds chirping. I also try to be open to all my senses, breathing in all the different smells that mingle in the air. I pay attention to details around me—the shapes of decaying leaves, the patterns, and colors in the sky, and the contrasts in landscape textures.  Within a couple of minutes, my mind is spirited away from the day-to-day, and I feel more refreshed.

When I heard the sounds of people yelling and screaming over the radio as the U.S. Capitol was being attacked, I was driving on the freeway. As I listened to what was unfolding, I felt increasingly more stressed. I could feel my heart racing. I turned the radio off. Then I remembered to slow my breathing and pay attention to each breath as I allowed the air to slowly fill my lungs and then expel it from my lungs.  I’ve been doing a lot of deep breathing this week. It has helped.

When my husband and I watched a rehash of the violence on the news last night, we changed the channel and found a light-hearted movie. We made some popcorn seasoned with olive oil, and the two of us enjoyed some laughter together.

We’ve all got to remember to take care of ourselves. We cannot control every circumstance. But we can exercise a degree of control as to how we respond to various circumstances.

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