I hear a lot on a daily basis – When the phone rings at my practice, Integrated Treatment Solutions (offices in Chestnut Hill and West Chester) it is generally a person who is making either an initial attempt to get help or has mustered the energy to go to bat again and see if something different can happen after years of enduring a particular problem. It is amazing how many people struggle with ongoing health and emotional problems, and yet they keep going. The strength of the human will and spirit is truly amazing, but long-standing issues are energy drains, and they can gradually erode at our health and can change our personalities.
As a Licensed Professional Counselor and Co-Occurring Disorder Professional – Diplomate serving Chester County and the Philadelphia area, I work with adults and young adults facing a variety of challenges- anxiety, depression, chronic pain, substance abuse and other problem behaviors – Sometimes two or more challenges happening at the same time.
After fifteen plus years of practice, what stands out to me most, is the immense impact of chronic stress on health and well-being. Stress can really wreak havoc on the human body, mind and emotions when not identified, managed and resolved. Left unchecked it can be disastrous.
What is Stress?
In our modern lives, we frequently talk about being stressed. We are stressed from rushing to work, getting to kid’s games and getting things done – Too much to do – the never ending list.
It might appear that the time – task ratio of demands appears most problematic, but it is actually the blocks that get in our way in moving forward to get things done and our response to them that is “stressful.” Leaving the house a little later than needed and then being caught in traffic and late for a meeting – feeling anxious and irritable; is an everyday example. A more intensive example may include having a year full of relentless challenges, including, job loss, death in the family, multiple home repairs and then getting sick – Not being able to get back on track and feeling depressed and disillusioned about life – compounded life changing issues. Both of these stress cycles can add up to negative outcomes over the long-term if mental and emotional issues and habits of coping are not addressed and tangible changes made.
Stress is our inner response to challenges – The more threatened we feel by challenges the more stressed and overwhelmed we get. The less equipped to cope and manage in the face of life’s challenges the more stress.
When stress is not relieved and continues over time, or even very intensive short-term stress, can lead to burnout. When we are burned out, we often lose touch with feeling as well as our inner motivation. Our desire and ability to take care of ourselves decreases, and we can feel detached and apathetic. We then become more vulnerable to sickness and disease, because our immune systems become compromised. This is where problems can start.
Some Obvious and Not So Obvious Sources of Stress
Stressors often go unidentified. When I meet with a new client in my Chestnut Hill or West Chester counseling office, I engage them in a comprehensive assessment, which includes an in-depth examination of personal history. My clients tell me about their life experiences and event’s; what is going well and what isn’t. Identifying lifestyle habits is part of this process. As we talk, it becomes clearer about how problems transpired. We often find multiple stressors continuing over time – compounding. Some are common stressors like finances, kids, and feeling too busy. Others are less obvious yet damaging over time both in terms of physical and mental health. These are usually the ongoing issues in the person’s life.
Some stressors that I hear about include:
- Frustration and resentment from living with someone with untreated ADD
- Living and coping with a disease like chronic Lyme
- Problems saying “no” and setting boundaries with people
- Being consumed with anger and resentment
- Having a high pressure job with a lot of responsibility but no decision-making power
- Loneliness and isolation due to difficulty maintaining relationships
- Unexpected divorce later in life and needing to rebuild and redefine one’s self
- Being sober in long-term recovery and not knowing how to build a balanced life
Many of these stressors have not been resolved and in turn become staples in the person’s life – just part of “How things are” – Yet they continue to drain energy and cause problems. They erode at attitude and take the zest out of life.
The Downward Spiral
When stressors continue and become the “new normal” – We start running on the juice of adrenaline which becomes the standard fuel of functioning and motivation – In the meantime, the body and mind are being drained.
Our lifestyles are then more likely to become a source of stress and tend to reinforce negative impact leading to break-down. Food and nutrition, sleep, recreation and leisure, socializing – laughing are all important in maintaining and building our health. When they are “off” or lacking, problems start to surface. Some of the things that decline first are healthy food, sleep and fun. Many of my clients initially report practically living on Wawa, drinking coffee to keep going, go to bed late and up early, taking too much prescribed or over the counter medications, barely get outside and not seeing friends – or even have friends. Life has gotten small.
When self-care is lacking our bodies eventually succumb to illness and disease – The combination of chronic stressors and unhealthy lifestyle behaviors combine, fueling poor health leading to depletion and inner distress – burn out.
By now, it is obvious as to why it is important to address stress – it can erode at health, mindset and sense of well-being.
Prolonged stress can impact the development of many problems including, depression, alcohol abuse/ addiction, chronic pain, irritable bowel disease, acid reflux, migraine headaches, cancer, and insomnia. These are just a few health issues which can be influenced by prolonged or even acute intensive stress. Keeping an eye out for early warning signs are key in prevention.
Notice changes in:
- Appetite/ food cravings
- Energy/ motivation
- Sex drive
- Frequent colds or illnesses
Disturbance in these areas of functioning is a warning sign that something needs to change. In these times of multiple demands, most of us need to improve our self-care and life skills, to be able to be more effective — increasing our ability to be flexible and resilient in the face of stress.
An Integrative Approach to Stress Management
Recovering from stress requires a multi-pronged approach. Whether I am working with someone who is in addiction recovery, chronic pain, and depression or someone with social fear, work problems, and overeating, I work with the whole person; using a holistic – skills based approach aimed at optimizing health and wellness.
The key to moving through and beyond stress and feeling of powerlessness is developing the self –management skills to build a more positive mindset, resilience and to become more stress hardy.
Focusing on stress reduction, identifying and developing personal strengths, developing a strong-positive support system, conflict resolution, self-care and setting personal limits and the building of emotion regulation skills are key in designing a lifestyle of healthy habits, which promote personal health and satisfaction.
Each of us has a winning formula to optimizing our health and sense of well-being over the long-term!