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Don't let tension take toll on health

Published 1:01 pm, Monday, October 14, 2013
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Recently, I heard about a young man not much older than my 31-year-old daughter, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Even though this fellow was dealing with horribly stressful circumstances, the story was still shocking. If anything positive could come out of such a horrific event, it provides an important reminder about the often-hidden dangers of stress.

Stress affects us all and there's no getting around it as long as we're alive. Sometimes symptoms are immediate and obvious, such as a racing heartbeat, shallow breathing or extreme irritability. Unfortunately, stress can affect us in ways that aren't so immediate or apparent, and here are some of the reasons:

We all-too-quickly become acclimated to it. Our bodies become accustomed to stress and as a result we don't even know we're experiencing it.

We tend to ignore our stress. The adrenaline rush that automatically occurs when we're stressed can give us the illusion that we're powering through the situation just fine.

We may not understand that certain symptoms may be stress-induced. For example those migraine headaches you get, or the indigestion you've had for years may not seem related to stressful events.

Sometimes the ravages of stress don't trigger any noticeable symptoms at all. Many fatal strokes and heart attacks occur without warning.

We may inadvertently have figured out ways to avoid the stress. Alcohol, prescription drugs and over-eating can give us a temporary, if unhealthy, escape from reality.

The good news is that there are some incredibly easy ways to manage stress. These techniques might seem like added pressure to an already hectic schedule. Experimenting with them, however, will likely provide significant relief over the long term.

Breathe: Often when we're stressed, our bodies automatically go into a fight or flight response, as if we're experiencing real danger. By sitting quietly and doing some deep breathing we can reverse this physiological reaction. Once our breathing has slowed down, we are better able to think clearly and to calmly and logically address the situation at hand.

Write: Taking a few minutes each day to journal can be incredibly helpful. Writing brings information that is just below the surface of consciousness into focus. Once we understand what is causing our stress we can try to take steps to resolve it. If there's nothing we can do to change it we're at least in a better position to let go of it and move forward.

Exercise: The endorphins released by exercise provide a sense of greater calm and well-being. Additionally, exercise keeps our mind more alert and our body -- especially our cardiovascular system -- in great shape.

Take a break: Slow down and engage in activities that bring you joy and put your problems in perspective. Although it can be difficult to pull ourselves away from pressing matters, doing so will help keep your stress level down to a dull roar.

Find your higher power: If you believe in a power greater than yourself, take time to get in touch with that power by regularly meditating, walking through the woods, sitting by the water, praying, attending a house of worship, or engaging in any other activity that reminds you that you aren't alone.

If these steps don't have the desired effect, it might be time to meet with your doctor or talk to a mental health professional. Stress is a good motivator when it allows us to be more productive, but not when it incapacitates us, causes us anxiety or depression, or results in serious health issues.

Maud Purcell is a psychotherapist, corporate consultant and director of the Life Solution Center of Darien. Write her at mpurcell@thelifesolutioncenter.net.