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How to Fight Stress-Related Diseases

Stress-related health problems can be the basis for many doctor visits.

For example, suppose Joe has inherited a predisposition to develop a depressive disorder. For him, a difficult breakup with his girlfriend may be all that's needed to trigger a bout of severe depression and the need for a doctor's visit.

Then, there's the natural "fight or flight" response, in which the body instinctively reacts to stressful situations by priming the body for lifesaving physical action.

When you're faced with extreme stress, for instance, the stomach limits digestion to conserve energy, blood vessels constrict to direct blood flow to major muscle groups, hormone levels change, blood pressure rises, and so on. The body responds to stress through very intense physiological reactions that, over time, can impact a person's health.

Keeping stress in check

No one can avoid all stress, and a certain amount actually is good for you. But it's always best to keep unhealthy levels in check when possible.

Follow these steps to control stress:

  • Understand what stresses you. Both positive and negative situations can tip the scales in your life. On the negative side, financial difficulties, divorce, criticism by a friend or boss, unrealistic work demands, or death of a friend or family member can cause stress. On the positive side, getting married, being promoted, having a baby, moving to a new home—even going on vacation—also can be stressful.

  • Notice when you're most vulnerable to stress and prepare yourself. Are you most affected in the mornings? On Mondays? In the winter?

  • Look at how you react to stress. Common effects include sleep problems, skin rashes, fatigue, irritability, agitation, headache, depression, excessive worrying, mood swings, chest pain, anxiety, upset stomach, ulcers, and high blood pressure.

  • Recognize your stress signals. Once you're aware of your stressors, you'll have a better idea of what you can control and how to control it.

Take these actions

  • Get organized. Use a daily planner and prioritize tasks.

  • Learn to set limits. Don't agree to unnecessary, stressful obligations.

  • Be physically active and eat a healthy diet.

  • Get eight hours of sleep each night.

  • Don't take illegal drugs.

  • Limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine.

  • Stop smoking. Take regular relaxation breaks instead of smoking breaks. You can follow a similar routine—leave the office, get fresh air, socialize, and take slow, deep breaths.

  • Avoid angry, violent, depressing or upsetting movies, TV shows, and newscasts until you are better able to handle them.

  • Try some relaxation techniques, such as self-hypnosis or guided imagery, prayer, meditation, yoga—whatever works for you.

If you try all of these strategies and you're still experiencing debilitating stress, it's important to seek outside help. Ask your physician for a referral to a psychologist or a psychiatrist who can help you deal with your feelings and help you identify ways to manage your personal and professional situations. Managing your stress will help you stay healthy and prevent serious health problems—so assess your stress today and take appropriate action!