By: David B. Baron, M.D.
I’m having a particularly stressful week. So I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity to focus this column on one of the top three reasons people come to see a doctor: feeling “stressed.”
Well, if you are reading this article then you live in the real world and stress is simply a part of that reality. What’s the cause? It may be the increasingly rapid pace at which we live, a lost sense of connectedness to our families, friends, neighbors and communities (despite the hyper-connectivity of social media and erosion of personal privacy), or a the lack of control we feel over everything from traffic to terrorism, cars to computers, the price of gas to the gridlock in our government. That’s aside from the individual trials and tribulations we each must face in when we lose a loved one, graduate from school, change jobs, partners or homes. But the end result is the same; it all affects our peace of mind, and ultimately our health. Everything from back pain to high blood pressure, insomnia to depression, headaches, asthma, diabetes, esophageal reflux and stomach ulcers may be caused by and/or aggravated by stress.
I am not licensed or likely to be able tell you how to eliminate stress in your life. Nor should that necessarily be the goal, since what challenges us often offers us opportunities to grow, innovate, and evolve as individuals and as a society. But to paraphrase an old expression, whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger if you cope with the stress adaptively. Unfortunately, I all too often see people doing exactly the OPPOSITE of what a reasonable, intelligent person might suggest to a friend who is struggling with undue stress in their life. What I generally recommend is to try to eat regular meals and a nutritionally balanced diet, do some vigorous exercise most days of the week, get enough sleep, avoid alcohol, smoking and drugs, try meditation, yoga, journaling, or therapy, and consider seeking help from a doctor or therapist if you need it. Instead, many people seem to quit going to gym, eat more fast food and junk, drink more, smoke more, sleep less, dabble in drugs, hide problems from friends and family, stop going to their houses of worship and refuse to see a therapist or try something new that might give them an hour or two of peace and quiet contemplation or just plain fun and release. That’s what I call “maladaptive coping.”
Whether or not it’s “human nature” to wallow in the misery, lick your wounds, drown your sorrows, stuff your feelings, sweep it under the rug (take your pick of common formulas for making matters worse) or try to ignore the problems and hope they’ll go away, the results of these types of maladaptive coping are pretty predictably unpleasant and unproductive.
So, think about whether the habits you have and the choices you make are actually CONTRIBUTING to your stress, or helping to alleviate it. There are many more ways than just the ones I’ve mentioned to keep you more balanced, resilient, healthy and growing, even in the face of an unpredictable world in which we’re all struggling to get by. It often takes only incremental, small changes practiced consistently to protect and improve your health in a hurry. That shouldn’t stress you out too much.
This article also appeared in the Daily Bruin.