The Christmas carols tell us that it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of year, but more often than not, it seems as though it’s the most stressful time of year. It’s no wonder as the holiday season often presents an array of additional stress such as parties, shopping and entertaining to people’s already busy lives.
Stress, often defined as the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change, affects people of all ages, genders and circumstances, and can lead to both physical and psychological health issues.
“Generally, holiday stress is temporary. People may feel stressed because they have to go to a party they may not want to go to, or eat unhealthy things that they really didn’t want to eat,” said Ute Gallert, nurse practitioner with East Hill Family Medical’s adult medicine office. “But unlike holiday, or even everyday stressors, untreated chronic stress can result in serious health conditions, including anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system."
Chronic stress results from a state of ongoing physiological arousal, which occurs when the body experiences stressors with such frequency or intensity that the nervous system does not have an adequate chance to activate the relaxation response on a regular basis. This means that the body remains in a constant state of physiological arousal, which affects virtually every system in the body. The human body was built to handle acute stress, which is short-lived, but not chronic stress, which is steady over a long period of time.
Research has shown that chronic stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses such as heart disease, depression and obesity. In fact, some studies have suggested that unhealthy chronic stress management, such as overeating "comfort foods," has contributed to the obesity epidemic. Additionally, research has shown that there is an association between chronic stress and a person’s abuse of addictive substances.
Many people who experience chronic stress are not making lifestyle changes necessary to reduce stress and ultimately prevent serious health problems. Improving lifestyle and changing behavior are critical steps toward increasing overall health and avoiding chronic stress. “Taking small steps to reduce your stress and improve your health is a good starting point," Gallert said. “This could be something as simple as going for a daily walk. Being physically active is a powerful change you can make to manage stress, because it increases your body’s production of feel-good endorphins.” The key to managing stress is recognizing and changing the behaviors that cause it, but changing those behaviors can be challenging.
If you or someone you know experiences high stress levels for a long period of time, or if problems from stress interfere with everyday activities, it’s important to reach out to a professional health care provider such as a medical doctor or psychologist. They can help people overcome the barriers preventing them from living a healthy lifestyle, manage stress effectively and identify behaviors and situations that are contributing to consistently high stress levels. For more information, or to schedule an appointment with a medical doctor, call East Hill Family Medical at (315) 253-8477.