Managing holiday stress

One of several versions of the painting “The Scream” (title: “Der Schrei der Natur,” The Scream of Nature).
One of several versions of the painting “The Scream” (title: “Der Schrei der Natur,” The Scream of Nature).

With the end of the year comes heightened stress for many people.

Stress is the brain’s response to a demand, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Change of any kind is a trigger for stress, and the nerve chemicals and hormones released during stressful time can actually help a person flee a dangerous situation. During short-term stress, tied to a specific event — a car accident or deadline at work — many of those body changes help a person get past the incident.

But long-term stress, or chronic stress, can do a body harm. “Your immunity is lowered and your digestive, excretory and reproductive systems stop working normally,” according to an NIMH fact sheet on stress.

Sheldon Cohen, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who specializes in the role of stress and social support systems in health and well-being, said stress affects behavior and health. It can cause a person to smoke more, eat a poor diet or not get a good night’s rest, he said. Those problems can lead to various health problems, he said.

It’s easy to see what happens to the body during a short stress attack, Cohen said. Hormones, including the steroid hormone cortisol, are released, and blood pressure may rise.

What is not so easy to discern is what goes on in the body over time. If a person has an underlying disease, including a heart problem, acute stress can trigger additional problems, he said. A person’s immunity may be lowered.

People react to stress differently. Some can experience digestive problems, others get headaches. A person can become depressed, angry or irritable. People under constant stress are more likely to get the flu or a cold, according to the NIMH.

Routine stress, from the pressures of work and family, aren’t as noticeable and can build up to create serious health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, according to the NIMH.

If life becomes overwhelming, the NIMH suggests a person seek help from a mental health care provider and get a physical from a doctor. It’s important to be around supportive people, whether it’s family, friends, co-workers or clergy. The NIMH also recommends exercising 30 minutes a day and begin a stress-reducing program like yoga.

Studies show stress can be reduced when people focus attention on their emotions, a practice known as mindfulness. “Mindfulness means staying aware and conscious of your experiences. No matter what we’re doing, we can always make time to bring our attention to our breath and body and stay there for a short period of time,” said NIH psychologist Rezvan Ameli.

The NIH funded a study that showed that mindfulness meditation can reduce stress, alter brain structure and function, and have a positive effect on the immune system.

The goal, experts say, is not to let emotional problems result in health problems. Take a break from care-giving duties, spend time with friends, get some exercise this winter and have fun.

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