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more articles by Gerson, Henry D. , MD  |  author's bio

Stress: A Leading Health Concern

Stress: A Leading Health Concern

By Henry D. Gerson, MD


Stress is a fact of life.  Most adults in the United States experience high stress on a daily basis. This first section of a two-part article on stress examines what stress is, how we react to it, and how it impacts our lives.  With that understanding, the second installment will explore the keys to stress management, and how controlling our reactions to stress can lead to better health and well-being.


What is stress?

Stress results when our environment demands something difficult of us, physically or psychologically. Physical challenges include tests of our strength or endurance, environmental changes, illness, and difficult chronic conditions such as being overweight. Psychological challenges include work and family obligations, conflicts, surprises, relationships, and even simple negotiations with close contacts or strangers. If our capabilities are suited to the stress, we perform well; otherwise we struggle.  


What is the stress reaction?

Human beings share a universal reaction to stress, which is called the flight or fight reflex. This is an automatic physical response governed by the nervous system. It prepares us to either run or fight. When we are alarmed, our brains signal the release of adrenaline and other stress-related chemicals. Our hearts beat faster, our blood pressure rises, our breathing speeds up, and our muscles tense. At the same time, our metabolism and immune system go into a sort of “emergency mode” where normal digestive and healing activities are put on hold. While this physical response can help during an athletic competition, most of our daily challenges don’t require it. Yet routine stress events trigger the fight or flight reflex automatically again and again throughout the day.


Uh oh - Is the stress reaction unhealthy?

The stress reaction presents problems, both mental and physical. When we react to stress with the fight or flight reflex, we think less rationally. The emotional state of the stress reaction is characterized by anxiety, or anger or both. It is not a state conducive to good cooperation and communication. 


Another problem is that the stress reaction becomes a habit. Our bodies maintain a higher “alert level” than needed. This continuing state of alarm has been implicated as a cause of high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and heart attacks, ulcers, anxiety and depression, and obesity, among other illnesses.


Ok, how can I stop my stress reactions?

In a word, to stop the stress reaction: relax. Similar to the fight or flight reflex, the relaxation response is an automatic process involving the nervous system.  The relaxation response occurs naturally throughout the day to balance, and essentially turn off, our stress reactions.  Therefore, we should relax often, and relax well.


What happens during the relaxation response?

Relaxation is a physical state of rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress. It decreases heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension. It shifts immune function towards health maintenance, as opposed to injury repair. Relaxation allows the body to recover energy and promotes rational thinking. Learning to bring the relaxation response under control is the key to successful stress management.


To learn how to elicit the relaxation response and develop an approach to stress management, look for part two of this article in the next Ithaca Journal Health Watch column, on Thursday, March 13. 


Dr. Gerson is an attending psychiatrist and medical director of Behavorial Health Services at Cayuga Medical Center at Ithaca. Community and corporate stress management programming is developed through the Cayuga Center for Healthy Living, located at the Island Health Center. To contact Cayuga Center for Healthy Living, 607-252-3590.



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