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Stress and Burnout

Stress is a normal part of life. Stress is the body's reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response. The body reacts to these changes with physical, mental, and emotional responses.  Many events that happen to you and around you -- and many things that you do yourself -- put stress on your body. You can experience stress from your environment, your body, and your thoughts.

How does stress affect health?

The human body is designed to experience stress and react to it. Stress can be positive, keeping us alert and ready to avoid danger. Stress becomes negative when a person faces continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between challenges. As a result, the person becomes overworked, and stress-related tension builds.

Stress that continues without relief can lead to a condition called distress -- a negative stress reaction. Distress can disturb the body's internal balance or equilibrium -- leading to physical symptoms including headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping. Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases.

Stress also becomes harmful when people use alcohol, tobacco, or drugs to try to relieve their stress. Unfortunately, instead of relieving the stress and returning the body to a relaxed state, these substances tend to keep the body in a stressed state and cause more problems. Consider the following facts:

  • Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
  • Seventy-five to 90% of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
  • Stress is linked to six of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace. In terms of lost hours due to absenteeism, reduced productivity and workers' compensation benefits, stress costs American industry more than $300 billion annually.
  • The lifetime prevalence of an emotional disorder is more than 50%, often due to chronic, untreated stress reactions.

Physical Warning Signs

Chronic stress can wear down the body's natural defenses, leading to a variety of physical symptoms, including the following:

  • Dizziness or a general feeling of "being out of it"
  • General aches and pains
  • Grinding teeth, clenched jaw
  • Headaches
  • Indigestion
  • Increase in or loss of appetite
  • Muscle tension in neck, face or shoulders
  • Problems sleeping
  • Racing heart
  • Cold and sweaty palms
  • Tiredness, exhaustion
  • Trembling/shaking
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Upset stomach
  • Sexual difficulties

Here are some useful tips and techniques to decrease stress and burnout.

  • Exercise- try to exercise a minimum of 3-4 times a week for at least 15 minutes.
  • Leave work at work- mentally allow yourself to leave work at the door and pick it back up upon entering the next workday
  • Allow unscheduled or unstructured leisure time
  • Get as much sleep as your body needs
  • Have interests outside work such as hobbies or projects
  • Find a trusted friend who can offer unbiased advice
  • Don't procrastinate-those things hanging over your head tend to cause more tension than doing what needs to be done
  • Learn to say "no"
  • Get organized with a "things to do list"
  • Identify and accept your limitations-not everyone does everything well.
  • Share your talents with other and vice versa
  • Learn to plan-being disorganized breeds stress.
  • Purchase an organizer that helps you stay organized. Many come with games installed for a few minutes of down time.
  • Be a positive person
  • Learn to play
  • Laugh

Dealing with life stresses

Alter your life by removing the source of stress. Better planning, being more organized in your personal and family life, and becoming more efficient in your use of time are common techniques for altering stress. Have a backup plan for any emergency.

Avoid stress by removing yourself from the stressful situation, or figuring out how not to get there in the first place. Sometimes it's okay to walk away, to let go, to say "no," to withdraw, to know your limits.

Accept the situation by equipping yourself physically and mentally for stress. You can build physical health by eating a proper diet, doing regular exercise and having regular health checkups. A body that is physically stressed because of sedentary living and poor eating habits is more likely to buckle under the additional weight of mental stress.

Mental health  is bolstered by 1) taking a few minutes a day for yourself to "recharge your batteries"; getting clear about your own goals and priorities in life; and 3) becoming the best person you can be.

Social health is strengthened by building friendships, and strengthening relationships with parents, children and/or your intimate partner.

Spiritual health is especially important in times of high stress. Prayer, meditation, worship, faith and commitment can strengthen you for tough times.

Here are some other approaches to dealing with everyday stress that you may find helpful:

Take a problem-solving approach to a potentially stressful situation. Has this happened before? If so, what did you learn from it? Decide what is the worst thing that can happen then consider your options. Ask yourself: "Will I even remember this incident five years from now?"

Think about these things: Take stock of your worries and fears. Look back over the last year and see how many things you worried about that came true and how many never happened. Listen to the ways you talk to yourself and to others. Do you create unnecessary stress by over-dramatizing situations and making things seem worse than they are?

Tune up your attitude. Do you dwell on criticism? Jump to conclusions? Expect the worst? Beware of negative thinking. Most stress you will experience will come from your attitude and "self-talk."

Talk to yourself in a positive way. Say whatever helps you to calm down. "Some day I'll laugh about this . . ." "things could be worse ..." "this is a character-building experience ..."

Pay attention to signs of stress overload. When stress is taking over our lives, we get headaches, colds, have indigestion, don't sleep well, act cranky and often feel angry. This is the time to look for patterns of stress in your daily life and try to get rid of them.

Don't try to be perfect. Parents should "worry less, criticize less, preach less, listen more, have more fun, be more honest with your own feelings, develop your own joys and friendships and don't sweat the small stuff." The goal is not to be a perfect parent, because no such thing exists. The hope is to be good enough so that your children can leave home as responsible adults who are able to take care of themselves."

Source: Mind & Body Health Newsletter, Vol. 6, No. 4, 1997