Is Your Stress Nearing the Boiling Point? Time to Jump Out!

We’ve all heard the fable about frogs and water.  If you plop a frog in boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But start it out in cold water and the poor frog won’t realize what’s happening to him. Although you gradually turn up the heat, the frog is oblivious, because the changes from one moment to the next seem insignificant. That is, they seem insignificant until suddenly, the water is too hot and the frog…well…croaks.

Stress does the same thing to adults that heat does to the frog. And if you don’t take care of it, the results can be devastating to your health. How does stress sneak up on you? Dr. Haney Assaad, Hospitalist, Internal Medicine Physician and VP of NOCHS Medical Affairs answers that question and more about the rampant stress we all face today.

Is stress a real physical problem?  Or is it just mental?
Kids are generally healthy, so for them, stress is an emotional problem. But stress in adults is an absolutely real physical problem. When we feel threatened, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol.  We can — and do — handle brief shots of cortisol many times in a day. But when the stress lasts too long (what we call “chronic” stress), that’s’ when it does real physical damage.

Why is chronic stress bad?
Chronic stress can have many negative impacts on your body, and is related to many diseases that can ultimately be life-threatening. Stress is known to contribute to high blood pressure. That’s a scary one, because high blood pressure is a symptomless killer. Stress can contribute to the formation of stomach ulcers, or create dietary problems such as diabetes or high cholesterol. If stress causes insomnia, your immune system can be weakened and you will be more vulnerable to communicable diseases. Stress can also make painful and embarrassing skin diseases such as psoriasis worse. Chronic stress is simply not good for any of your body’s systems.

How common is adult stress, and how do I know if I have it?
I would estimate that in a normal year, 20 percent of the patients in our practice exhibit stress symptoms. And this is not a normal year by any stretch of the imagination. Those numbers are probably three times higher now during the COVID pandemic. Just imagine…60 percent of the adult patients we see are experiencing chronic stress. Some patients have what we might call emotional symptoms, such as racing thoughts, panic attacks, or difficulty concentrating. Others demonstrate more physical symptoms such as an elevated heartbeat, chest pains, hyperventilating or insomnia. And for some, the stress has gotten so bad that they are thinking about suicide or self-harm. If you’re noticing any of these symptoms, you are not alone. And you need to do something about it.

What can I do about stress?
Every week, I see patients who have been literally immobilized or even hospitalized by stress. That’s unfortunate, because there’s no benefit in waiting to do something about it. The most important thing, relating back to our frog analogy, is to get out of the water!  Don’t wait until the situation becomes unbearable. You can start with simple self-care steps like exercise, limiting caffeine, getting more sleep and deep breathing. Maintaining social activities is also important, whether you do it in person or via a tool like Zoom. If that’s not working, call your physician so you can talk about what’s going on. Maybe talking a counselor would help.  In some cases, maybe a short-term medication is the right solution. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. There is no shame in experiencing what 60 percent of your peers are experiencing. The other important thing to remember is that self-medication with drugs or alcohol is not the answer. In fact, going that route will just create more problems. Finding a healthy way to reduce stress is the best long-term approach for your overall health and mental well-being.

Where can I find some good resources to start with?
NOCHS is an active member of the North Ottawa Wellness Foundation. This group has done amazing work focused on community wellness. On their website, you will find a book entitled, “In the Moment: Learning to Respond to Life’s Moments with Skill and Intention” that you can download for free from the Programs and Projects tab of the website. You can also pick it up at The Bookman. The book contains simple techniques and stories from local people who have used them to their benefit. The site also contains information, tools and techniques for managing stress, exercising, healthy eating and more. If you need or want more, I again encourage you to contact your primary care physician to explore the options. We are here to help.

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