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How to Find Your Solution to Stress

donaldwilliams donaldwilliams February 25, 2016 0 Comments Family Medicine

stressed womanHaving gotten past Groundhog’s Day (didn’t see his shadow), Valentine’s Day (remembered my wife) and now being teased with warm weather, it may seem an odd time to write about stress. Unfortunately, however, all of us continue to be bombarded with stress in our everyday lives and learning to cope with the day-to-day issues we face, and not have stress zap us of our energies is one of the life lessons we all need to learn. I’d like to offer some of my thoughts, and hopefully a strategy or two, which might be helpful.

Our brains run on chemicals, much like a battery, and seem to be recharged primarily when we sleep. Therefore, those whose restful sleep is interrupted by anything: an early alarm clock, a bed partner who snores, arthritis pain, getting up to the bathroom, etc. may wake up in the morning with a brain that is only half charged. Maybe staying up too late, especially for teenagers or sleeping too little, given all our responsibilities is the greatest culprit. Nonetheless, it is hard to get through the day with a half-charged brain, and having extra brain energy to deal with unexpected stressors gets tougher and tougher.

So my first suggestion to deal with stress is to improve your sleep, maybe both in the amount and the quality.

Strategies found to help sleep include...

  1. Making enough time for it. Most adults do best with 7 1/2 to 8 1/2 hours of sleep, I often challenge patients to try getting that much for two weeks and see how they feel.
  2. Avoiding caffeine after lunch. The sleep disruption lasts much longer than the jolt of the caffeine.
  3. Stop smoking. Smoking actually acts like caffeine preventing restful sleep.
  4. Avoid alcohol. A glass of wine may help you fall asleep, but it awakens you 6 hours later, and keeps you up for a while.
  5. Add exercise- but not too close to bedtime. Your metabolism speeds up and may not want to then rest. If you cannot sleep, get out of bed and do something for a while, so your brain doesn’t associate your bed with frustration (Google “Bootzin technique).
  6. Consider a hot bath/light snack/warm herbal tea before bedtime. This may help you

A second consequence of stress is what I refer to as our “Achilles heel".

Achilles was a mythological Greek warrior who was dipped by his heels into a magic pool at birth, and was invulnerable in battle, until someone remembered, and shot an arrow into his heels. For each of us, when stressed, we often get a specific symptom: headaches, abdominal pain, acne, diarrhea, etc. I often think of it as our own Achilles heel, i.e. when stressed, that part of us is likely to fall apart. I wonder if it may be genetically determined (families with migraine) or maybe learned from observing our parents while growing up. In pediatrics, stress usually is manifested as either headaches or abdominal pain (and I remember lots of stomach aches in 2nd and 3rd grade). Anyway, I believe that one good way to lower our stress level, is to “sweat stress out our pores’. Often, especially in college students suffering stress, I have been able to help them by getting them on an exercise program, at least three days a week, where they work hard enough to get their lungs flapping and hearts thumping. The stress becomes less bothersome, and the exercise helps improve sleeping.

So a challenge to each of us would be to find a way to “sweat stress…”

I’m not sure who first said “Worry is the price you pay for things that are never likely to happen.”  But it is a phrase I have often repeated. And worrying is an activity which depletes our brain energy, making a fully charged brain, drain quickly. When an idea is stuck in your head, it often seems like being stuck on a Merry-Go-Round, with each turn, your brain goes over the same idea/worry again and again. I think it is necessary to try to change the brain’s thinking, by changing activities, doing something you enjoy (reading, hobbies, movies, physical activity, etc.) Something to fill your brain with different thoughts, and to get you off the Merry-Go-Round. If you tend to worry in the middle of the night, after 15 to 30 minutes get up and do something different, maybe read or do a puzzle (usually not TV-too stimulating) and often after 30-45 minutes you can go back to bed and sleep.

Finally, if your stress is just getting you down, visit your primary care doctor, there are other strategies we may be able to suggest. Just sharing your concerns with your provider, can be stress relieving. And if stress is severe or persistent, there may be medications which can help get you back on track. Also underlying medical conditions can aggravate stress, and treating those can help you. Good luck for a stressless spring and summer, I hope to see you out there sweating…