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Stress has become an inevitable part of daily life in the United States for the majority of Americans. The longer I am in practice, the more I realize that almost all of my patients are subjected to what they interpret as stress. Taking care of a newborn infant is just as stressful as an executive working for a major corporation that is constantly concerned with the bottom line. I will attempt to define the effects of stress on the body. I will also offer some advise on how to manage stress.

Physiological Effects of Stress

The human body reacts to stress with a "fight or flight" response. This response evolved over the years when our ancestors came face to face with a hostile situation such as an encounter with a tiger. The body has a surge of adrenaline which prepares the body for a physically challenging event. This physiologic response was intended to be infrequent. Unfortunately, many people today interpret their environment as hostile the majority of the time. This causes numerous physiologic changes to occur in the body. The blood pressure increases, the pulse rate increases and over a long period of time, the immune system begins to falter. This would explain why individuals who are under a lot of stress become ill more frequently than usual. An example would be college students studying for finals. They tend to have a high incidence of colds and other infections. This is because they stay up late at night and put their bodies through a lot of stress. Stress can also play a part in the development of heart disease. The high adrenaline state accelerates the development of heart disease. The blood tends to clot more rapidly. This would explain why individuals subjected to an acute stressful event can have a heart attack. They almost always have underlying heart disease.

Symptoms of Stress

1. Headaches
2. Insomnia
3. Poor energy level
4. Stomach cramps associated with diarrhea and/or constipation
5. Irritability
6. Poor concentration
7. Inability to relax

Stress Management

First of all, try to identify the factors that create stress in your life. Consider options to avoid the stressful situation altogether. If your job is the cause of most of your stress, consider a job change. This seems like a dramatic step, but it is an option that can really help. If you are unable to avoid certain stressful situations, then you will need to learn to cope with the situation. Avoid committing yourself to every project that comes your way. It is important to know your limitations. Learn how to say "no." Sometimes, taking a vacation can be rejuvenating.
In my opinion, regular exercise is one of the best antidotes for our stressful lives. Exercise is a natural tranquilizer. Every symptom of stress can be improved or eliminated by regular exercise. Patients frequently will say that they simply don't have time to exercise. In reality, the time invested in exercise will easily "pay for itself" in improved efficiency. Concentration improves so mental tasks can be accomplished more rapidly. Sleep improves and the overall energy level is increased, which allows physical tasks to be accomplished faster.
Meditation can help us deal with our stressful lives. Yoga is a great way to reduce stress. Studies have shown that daily meditation can actually reduce blood pressure. Music therapy has been shown to have a calming effect. Caring for a pet can help us cope with the daily stressers of life.
Discussing your problems with friends can be therapeutic. If things get out of hand, you may need to seek professional help through a counselor. Sometimes the symptoms of stress can be related to the underlying chemical imbalance of depression. In this case, medication may be indicated. Lastly, try to maintain a positive attitude. This can be therapeutic in itself.


Townsend, M. C. (1993). Psychiatric / Mental Health Nursing. Philadelphia: F. A. Davis Co.

The information provided above is offered as a community service about health-care issues and is not a substitute for individual consultation. Advice on individual problems should be obtained from your personal physician. This information is based on research by the author and represents his interpretation of the literature.

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Readers may send questions to our email address. This column is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional or medical advice.

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