Everyone experiences stress—and sometimes it’s even good for us. Holidays and weddings give us something to look forward to. Starting a new job is a challenge but also an achievement that opens up more opportunities. This positive stress, or “eustress,” keeps us engaged and interested in life.
While over-filling our schedules with too many fun activities and new challenges can be a problem, it’s negative stress, “distress,” that impacts our health the most. Chronic stress—which is stress that lingers over weeks, months, or years—can lower the body’s ability to fight illness; raise blood pressure; cause unwanted weight gain; and lead to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and fatigue. Excessive or prolonged stress can also exacerbate existing medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
Sometimes chronic stress is easy to recognize. For example, long-term unemployment and divorce are chronic stressors. However, acute or short-term stress that occurs every day can turn into chronic stress. Dealing with a toxic personality or commuting through bad traffic on an ongoing basis can result in chronic stress.
Our bodies deal with stress by raising our heart rate, tensing our muscles, and increasing our blood pressure. This primitive response was valuable when we had to quickly choose between fight and flight. However, when the body acts this way daily it creates a new resting normal that’s unhealthy. Because chronic stress is hard to avoid, it’s important that everyone learn techniques to manage and control it.
Some of the easiest and most accessible stress-management techniques are breathing exercises. One of my favorites is “box breathing.” To do this we breathe in for a four-count, hold our breath for a four-count, exhale for a four-count, and pause for a four-count. Repeating this type of meditative breathing can lower blood pressure, relax the body, and clear the mind. For people who want to make just one change to help manage stress, this is a simple and effective option.
Other relaxation methods include joining a yoga or Pilates class (or using online videos), practicing meditation, getting regular cardiovascular exercise, or partaking in a favorite hobby. Adopting a healthy diet, getting adequate sleep every night, and creating meaningful social relationships are other things that balance chronic stress.
Taking on the task of personal stress management can feel daunting, however simply recognizing the existence of chronic stress is a good first step. I often tell my patients to put themselves first for at least 30 minutes every day. Reserving time to relax—not simply veg out—can lower chronic stress and counteract its negative health effects.
Paige Grider is a physician assistant at Vancouver Clinic–Ridgefield. She has a special interest in helping individuals manage stress and reduce its impact on their bodies. She enjoys treating the whole person and is honored to be able to support people in sickness and health. For Paige, the connections she fosters with patients are the most rewarding part of practicing medicine.