By Phil Wyzik, CEO, Monadnock Family Services
Ever heard the phrase, “Know your Numbers”? It’s a health promotion project designed to get people to know some important indicators of physical health risks such as body-mass index (BMI), blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
However, when it comes to the stress we all experience, there’s no lab test or simple way to objectively measure this mental health aspect of our wellbeing. Still, the slogan “know your numbers” is valuable to remember if you want to try to avoid the long term effects of stress that might put you at risk for physical and mental illnesses.
Stress is a physical, physiological and emotional reaction to life events that most often we evaluate as negative or threatening. Whether real or imagined, this total-system response is hard wired into our being thanks to a tiny part of the brain called the amygdala.
This cluster of neurons is thought to be the center of our “fight or flight” reaction to bad things we perceive in the world around us. This is really helpful since if we find ourselves in a burning building let’s say, our body signals us to either rush for the fire extinguisher or the nearest exit, depending upon how we evaluate this threat in a micro second of time.
What we “stress out” about
But, for most of us, the negatives we perceive every day are not life-threatening. What stresses us out are financial worries, the loss of jobs or relationships, work or health problems, parenting, or other daily pressures such as traffic jams, deadlines and schedules.
The stress people feel from these everyday concerns can cause symptoms such as memory problems, difficulty concentrating, moodiness, irritability, sadness, constant worrying, nervous habits (such as pacing or finger nail biting), drastic changes in sleeping and eating habits, intestinal problems and isolation from others.
Symptoms like these mean the amygdala is stuck in high gear, according to some theories.
But just knowing what is happening to your brain isn’t enough. Learning to cope and how you, personally, can get your stress levels down are critical to your health because the consequences of prolonged stress or even periodic high levels of stress can be significant.
Unmanaged stress can lead to, or exacerbate, medical problems such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, gastro-intestinal disorders, infertility and sleep disorders. Some in the field of stress research use the term “colossal” to describe the connection between stress and physical disease.
Know your (coping) numbers
Knowing what works to lower your stress is the key to your victory over stress.
Take some time right now and think about the many ways you cope with stress today:
- What’s the number one way to battle stress that works the best for you?
- What’s your second best strategy?
- How about your third? What’s after that on your list?
The more you know these coping numbers, and the more methods on your list, the better prepared you might be to keep life happier and healthier.
Being conscious about your repertoire of healthy responses to stress — and what works for you — is the first step to creating a rich reservoir for coping.
To do this, you’ll have to think about those events in life that cause you symptoms of stress in the first place. That knowledge is the starting point to building a stress-less lifestyle.