At some point in life, everyone faces a personal crisis that creates overwhelming stress. For a while, you feel as though your world has fallen apart. But eventually, you learn to cope.
But job loss and deaths in the family usually don’t happen that frequently. Other stressors can be just as bad. In fact, it’s the day-today hassles-the flat tires, the bounced checks, the last-minute projects at work-that repeatedly push your body’s panic button. The result: chronic stress.
Stress mobilizes your body’s fight-or-flight reflex, which prepares you to cope with threatening situations, according to psychologist Georgia Witkin, Ph.D., director of the stress program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. In emergencies, the fight-or-flight reflex has clear value. It floods your bloodstream with stress hormones that enable you to defend yourself or run from danger. These stress hormones, notably cortisol, increase respiration and heart rate, elevate blood pressure, raise blood sugar level, and slow digestion (because digestion is not a priority in emergencies).
When your body remains in this red-alert stage, which is what happens in chronic stress, it can lead to a host of physical and psychological symptoms: diarrhea, constipation, an irritable bowel, nausea, heartburn, headache, neck and shoulder pain, chronic fatigue, cold hands and feet, irritability, and anxiety attacks. It also contributes to what Dr. Witkin calls the Four Ds: disorganization, decision-making difficulties, depression, and dependency fantasies (wishing to be rescued by someone who makes everything all better).
How can you keep stress from overwhelming you? “It all comes down to regaining control-or at least partial control-over your stressors,” says Paul J. Rosch, M.D., president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, New York. “Reasserting some control is the basic key to coping.”
Each of us experiences stress individually, so each of us must come up with our own unique coping strategies. The good news is that there are dozens to choose from. And they work.