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When Stress Becomes Distress

Everybody has stressful days that result in sore necks and shoulders. Sometimes we have sleepless nights as we wrestle with problems. But then we regain our balance and go on with life.

Our bodies are extremely resilient and flexible. Even when high levels of stress extend for longer periods of time, we are still able to cope as long as it doesn’t go on forever.

It’s when problems seem overwhelming with no solutions, we are having difficulty adjusting to change and we remain stressed for longer and longer periods of time without relief that we become dis-stressed. Our sleep becomes chronically disturbed, making it harder and harder to fall asleep or stay asleep. And with less rest, our bodies have difficulty restoring itself.

Symptoms of distress

Other problems emerge: irritability may now become a chronic response to life; there is always a dull headache and we constantly have gastro-intestinal problems. We grab for that cookie or fat, mouthwatering, sugar laden muffin to give us a moment of bliss or respite. The once in a while glass of wine to unwind at the end of the day now becomes a daily ritual of one, two or three glasses. Our heart seems to be racing more often, and we worry about hypertension – high blood pressure and arterial disease. Our hands and feet always feel cold or clammy even when others seem comfortable and we can’t remember when we felt happy. We have lost our joy and zest for living. 

As our distress becomes a habit, we rely more and more on short term coping strategies such as prescription drugs, food, alcohol, or smoking. We overeat; especially on foods high in carbohydrates, fats and sugars, junk food. We are too tired to exercise and we gradually lose interest in taking care of ourselves. We don’t exercise or take prescribed medication.

Take your stress levels serious

In 2004 a team of psychologists published findings from a review of nearly 300 scientific studies linking chronic stress and the immune system. These studies, dating from 1960 to 2001 and involving 18,941 test subjects, showed incontrovertible evidence that stress causes changes in the immune system.

What they found was that short-term stress temporarily boosts immunity, but chronic stress weakens the immune system, making us more vulnerable to common ailments and serious diseases. The elderly and people suffering from illness are more susceptible to changes in the immune system due to chronic stress. Other studies show that exposure to chronic stress early in life makes us even more vulnerable to a depressed immune system throughout our lifetime. 

The bottom line

We can’t eliminate stress – nor do we want to. Good stress helps us meet our goals and live happy lives. We just want to keep it from becoming chronic stress where there become fewer and fewer moments of peace, contentment and joy. If we are constantly stressed in a negative way, unable to resolve problems or adapt to change, our stress system begins to work against us.

2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC

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