Are you managing your stress, or is it managing you?

Author: Leslie Toldo

Choose your poison- an unexpected bill, an argument with a friend, another driver cutting you off in traffic. Even if you manage to side-step these or any other common triggers, it is impossible to avoid stress altogether.

There is a straightforward reason, says Nicole Franklin, PsyD, LP, ABPP

“Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives,” Franklin said. “Stress mobilizes us to act via the activation of the hypothalamus, an area of the brain that produces hormones that control several things including mood.”

There are three basic types of stress; environmental, social, and physiological, according to Dr. Franklin, the academic director of behavioral health at McLaren Flint and the assistant medical director at McLaren Bariatric and Metabolic Institute. 

 As stress levels have risen globally over the past few years, the conversation about how to manage stress has also gained prominence.  

“In healthcare, we are often helping individuals manage physiological stressors such as illness and injury that are impacted by social stressors such as access to care,” Dr. Franklin said. 

Yet, believe it or not, stress is not all bad, said Dr. Franklin. 

“Eustress – (which is a) healthy stress – is the stress you feel when you are excited,” Franklin said. “This form of stress motivates you to focus your energy so that you can enhance your performance.”

Our brains and bodies are hard-wired to manage good and bad stressors and to protect us from perceived threats. However, Dr. Franklin says that natural stress response can lead to danger if it is activated for too long.

“Unhealthy stress can take the form of constant worry, depression, and exhaustion,” Franklin said. “It can also lead to weight gain due to the release of cortisol, which suppresses the digestive system. It is well documented that continuous stress weakens the immune system and is correlated with increases in blood pressure, suspension in tissue repair, and poor compliance with self-care.”

A third of the adults who responded to an American Psychological Association survey reported experiencing stress so intense they could not function daily. Three-quarters of respondents in the APA’s annual Stress in America survey listed the future of our nation among their top stressors.

No matter what triggers your stress response, there are warning signs that stress is putting you in danger, such as:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Frequently in a hurry
  • Feeling uneasy or helpless 
  • Difficulty starting or finishing tasks
  • Irritability

Managing daily stress boils down to being flexible, patient, and purposeful. The reward for learning to manage stress is an improvement in overall well-being. 

“It is not the load that breaks you down,” Dr. Franklin said. “It’s how you carry it that can. Pace yourself and acknowledge what you can control and what you cannot. “

Dr. Franklin suggests something she calls the “solve, don’t stew” method.  

“The technique requires you to focus on specific details in order to develop goals to anchor you rather than allowing yourself to stay focused on what is not going well,” she said.

Stress and anxiety are similar in many ways, but they are not the same. Stress is typically a short-term response to a recognized external threat, while the source of anxiety can be challenging to pinpoint. 

Whether you suspect you are dealing with either stress or anxiety, there are critical signs you should seek professional help: 

  • Having thoughts of harming yourself or others
  • Frequently turning to alcohol or drugs to cope
  • Inability to complete daily tasks

“If stress overwhelms you, appears to take over your life, or prevents you from functioning, you could benefit from some professional support and treatment,” Dr. Franklin said.  

If you think stress may be a serious problem, you should talk with your primary care physician. You can also get in touch with a McLaren behavioral health specialist here