Do these symptoms sound familiar? Your stomach is in knots and your muscles are tense. You wake every couple of hours during the night. You get easily frustrated with people.
These are deleterious reactions from stress. Even in the medical community, not everyone is conscious of the impact stress has on the physical and emotional well-being, and in turn, our behaviors.
According to one 2013 study, 49% of adults admit to overeating or eating unhealthy foods due to stress at least weekly. Even worse, several studies have proven that people experience significant increases in drug, alcohol or tobacco use as a reaction to stress. Stressed adults also succumb to more angry outbursts. Stress causes us to literally lose energy and act like a different person.
Stress is Contagious
Just like germs, stress is contagious. Have you ever watched someone pace the room and started to feel uneasy yourself? Or watched the news and felt your blood boil?
German researchers paired 362 people together, exposing one person to a psychosocial stressor (e.g., doing a faux job interview) and leaving the other as an observer. As expected, 95% of the job interviewees experienced a rise in cortisol, a primary stress hormone. The surprising finding was among observers. Approximately 30% of them produced more cortisol just by watching through a one-way mirror.
This makes being conscious of and addressing our stress so important, especially when we are in a leadership or caregiving role, as not to project our stress onto others. As providers, it is also imperative to help patients keep their own stress at bay. Unfortunately, this is rare. While 32% of patients recognized the benefit of talking with providers about stress management, only 17% admitted it was happening, one study finds.
“Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it”
American Author Charles R. Swindoll hit the nail on the head when he said this. As a coach, I teach tools that allow us to evaluate current stress levels, identify key triggers and ways we self-generate stress, and how to reduce it. The most crucial part of awareness is recognizing we have a choice in how we respond.
Stress isn’t all bad. Known as eustress, it can stimulate us and help us hop out of bed with an agenda. It activates the brain’s thinking centers and provides the energy needed to pay attention to details throughout our day. In fact, having no stress can make us feel lazy or unmotivated.
On the other hand, when we react to stress and perceive the situation to be a threat, we have a negative response and cause the destructive reactions of overeating, anger, irritability, and helplessness.
Personally, when I feel my stress level rising, I immediately remind myself of the physiological impact it is having on my body and that I have a choice. Then I often use a simple tool like stopping to take some deep breaths, doing a short centering, or taking some time after work to dance Argentine Tango--one of my personal passions.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, what’s your strategy to regain control and lessen your negative stress reactions? Does stress impact your work? How do you help patients with stress?