We all deal with stress. Deadlines. Bills. Job changes. Relationship challenges. The list goes on. Yet, untreated chronic stress can be deadly.
“Chronic stress can overload the body’s systems increasing the risk of hypertension, cardiac diseases such as heart attack and stroke, and compromise the immune system,” says Danielle Herrmann, a licensed clinical and medical social worker and director of behavioral health services at Evergreen Health Care, which operates primary care offices in Baltimore City, White Marsh, Columbia and Greenbelt.
According to Herrmann, while quick fixes don’t exist, recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress that can cause or exacerbate health problems is an important first step. These can include, for example, experiencing some of the following:
- Cognitive problems — poor concentration and memory, negativity, poor judgment, constant worrying.
- Physical symptoms — digestive upset, aches and pains, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, loss of sex drive.
- Emotional signs — depression, anxiety, irritability, anger, feeling overwhelmed, other mental health challenges.
- Behavioral changes — withdrawal, avoidance, disrupted sleep (insomnia or sleeping more), over- or undereating, procrastination, use of alcohol, tobacco and other substances.
“Stress is a major issue for our patients and for people in general, so I can understand the point of view of looking for a quick fix, such as a 10-minute routine as a cure-all,” Herrmann says. However, making sustainable lifestyle changes to manage stress is a more involved process that can significantly improve a person’s health and sense of control in their life, she adds.
Because stress varies by individual, it is a complicated beast to address. Cultural and gender influences affect how stress is interpreted and managed. Herrmann recommends people seek help from health professionals, starting with their primary care team. She says her employer, Evergreen Health Care, takes a patient’s stress level incredibly seriously. Evergreen offers a holistic, team approach to health care: Each patient’s care team consists of a primary care medical provider, an RN health educator/care coordinator, medical assistant and a licensed behavioral health specialist. Patients are also directly supported by a practice site supervisor and front desk coordinator.
“A behavioral health specialist meets with every patient for their annual checkup, regardless of age,” Herrmann says. “That means every patient is not only checked physically, but they also get a wellness and well-being checkup. We screen for issues that are very much related to stress, such as depression or anxiety.” She adds, “That’s right. We screen everyone for stress.”
Evergreen’s behavioral health specialists pay keen attention to what is happening in a patient’s life, such as dealing with job loss or loss of a loved one. “The stress of a significant loss, particularly heartbreaking, sends a surge of stress hormones to the heart muscle,” Herrmann says. “And that can lead to cardiac problems: Research shows links between depression, mental health, and heart health.”
In addition, the health team supports each patient, helping them explore and set realistic goals matched to their readiness to engage in lifestyle changes — from eating healthier to establishing consistent sleep patterns to designing appropriate exercise goals to quitting smoking — taking into consideration age, fitness and other important health factors.
Herrmann tells the story of a recent patient at Evergreen who wanted to reduce smoking while searching for a job and quit smoking before the start date of her new job. Her team quickly leapt into action.
“The smoking cessation group was facilitated here by behavioral health specialists,” Herrmann says. “The nicotine craving was addressed by the patient’s primary care medical provider. The patient was worried about gaining weight so met with the RN Health Educator. The career counseling happened here as well. In the end, everything happened at Evergreen. And she ended up getting a new job and quitting smoking.”
The good news is most people can help manage everyday stress and reduce damage to body and mind. Herrmann says learning to do so is a lot like learning to swim or dance — it takes good coaching and practice. Getting started can be daunting, but with a team ready to provide support along the way, your life will be better for it, she says.
A holistic approach to stress reduction may include a massage therapist, yoga instructor or acupuncturist to assist in managing a new lifestyle, says Laura Kalman, a licensed massage therapist and owner of Metta Integrative Wellness Center in Baltimore.
No matter how busy people are, Kalman says, people can find small ways to reduce everyday stress without spending a lot of time or money.
Here are some tips Kalman recommends for dealing with everyday stressors:
When at home, dance. Expressive and excited body movement each day helps cleanse the body of stress.
Put your gadgets down. Reading social media updates and work email can trigger stress. Turn off your cellphone, tablet and laptop for a brief time each day and enjoy a nap, meditation or some hot tea.
“Do what makes you feel good,” says Kalman. “And above all, be kind to yourself and don’t judge yourself.”
Adds Herrmann: “The moral of the story is that anyone who is dealing with chronic stress or stress overload should see their primary care physician and go from there.”
—Daniel Vasquez for Evergreen Health