West End Healthline
By Chatterton, PhD, LP
We have all heard that we should manage our stress in order to stay healthy. Many people, however, do not realize how connected their mental health can be to their medical diagnoses. Stress heightens common physical ailments such as colds, high blood pressure and irritable bowel syndrome and can also contribute to serious medical concerns such as chronic pain, Alzheimer’s Disease, Diabetes and cancer. This is why your doctor may ask about your stress level and emotional well-being even when you only may have had concerns about a medical condition. This can be confusing, and we may think to ourselves, “She doesn’t seem to be taking me seriously!” Or “Is he saying it’s all in my head?” Once you have a better understanding of how connected your mind and body truly are it will make more sense to have conversations with your physician about your mental health. The holidays can be a uniquely stressful time, so let’s explore the implications of that stress and how to manage it.
Our bodies and our brains are in constant communication through an interconnected network of neurons called the autonomic nervous system. Those phrases we use like, “gut feeling,” “made my skin crawl” and “butterflies in my stomach” demonstrate the ways in which our bodies give us information about our emotions and feelings. In addition to this communication, the nervous system is responsible for all of the body’s automatic functions like heart rate, breathing, temperature control and survival when we detect danger. In fact, our nervous system is constantly scanning our environment for signs of threat and is making this assessment four times every second. If we are in a state of chronic stress, the nervous system will detect threat and danger whenever it scans the body for the information. We are then stuck with constant tension, irritability and a feeling of being on edge.
Think of a time when you were stressed about something. Can you remember how your body felt at that time? Were your muscles tensed? Heart racing? Jaw clenched? Couldn’t sit still? All of that is because the body was preparing to help you survive a threat. Chronic stress shows up in the body as a sign of danger, and our bodies spring into action. This is a brilliant strategy that your body engages in automatically to help you survive something painful or overwhelming. The problem is that if you are in this state consistently, the body gets overloaded with stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. This can cause inflammation, tension and pain in the nervous system and can disrupt all those automatic functions that keep us healthy. This is why chronic stress is so bad for our health. Not to mention it doesn’t feel good and prevents us from staying connected to our loved ones and doing things we enjoy. You may find yourself saying “don’t get so worked up, this isn’t even a big deal” or “just relax, there’s nothing to worry about.” No matter what we tell ourselves, however, it is our body and nervous system that hold the key to relaxing, remaining calm, and feeling safe and healthy. So, next time you are in this situation, try to do something healthy for your body like take deep breaths, stretch those tight muscles, take a short walk, or talk to someone you trust about how you feel.
Remember to talk to your doctor about finding ways to better manage your stress and mental health. There may not be any easy answers, but even small improvements can make big impacts on your health. Oftentimes people find that therapy and medications for mental health can also improve their other medical problems. With these potential benefits, there is never a bad time to explore ways to improve your stress. Perhaps talking to your doctor about improving your stress and mental health can be a gift you give yourself this holiday season!
Dr. Chatterton works at Allina Health United Family Physicians, 233 Grand Ave, St Paul, MN; 651-241-5200