Stress is a part of life. Between the pressure at work and responsibilities at home, nearly everyone experiences it. But some are affected more than others.
“Especially for the sandwich generation who are simultaneously caring for their children and older parents, day-to-day pressures can lead to stress and anxiety that can have both physical and emotional effects,” says Wayne Anderson, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic in Rancho San Diego.
According to a recent Pew Research Center report, nearly four in 10 middle-aged adults say both their grown children and parents rely on them for emotional support.
Dr. Anderson says that while both genders have to deal with stressors like financial worries, work issues, and relationship problems, women tend to bear the brunt of family obligations. That means meeting the sometimes complex needs of members of younger and older generations while still keeping themselves healthy.
A certain amount of stress is normal, but excessive stress can have an adverse effect on your health. Symptoms to watch out for include:
- Stomach upset
- Trouble sleeping
Stress can also raise blood pressure, which can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. It can also suppress your immune system, making you more likely to get sick.
To keep stress from harming your health, it’s important to understand how the stress mechanism works.
Stress can activate a chronic cyclical stress response — a reaction to perceived danger — and send it into overdrive. It’s the basic “fight or flight” response that once helped humans survive the imminent threat of predators in prehistoric times. This innate response can be counterproductive now that we live in relative safety, but, nevertheless, it can show up in these forms:
- Becoming overly focused on home, work, or world problems. Thoughts about them run through your mind all day long.
- Perceiving these problems as threats, and your body responds with hormones and tension to defend against them.
- Feeling exhausted and overwhelmed while your mind races and your body tries to keep up.
- Going to bed still primed for a fight, sleep restlessly, and start the cycle all over again the next day.
Instead of letting your mind influence your body, help your body influence your mind. Try these tips:
One-minute stress-buster: Breathe and focus
Concentrate on taking 10 full, deep breaths. With eyes closed, inhale and exhale for three to five seconds through your nose, breathing deeply into the diaphragm so that you feel your belly filling with air as you inhale, and flattening as you exhale. By giving your full attention to the sensations of breathing, you shut out your mind chatter.
Reduce the stressors
At some point, it may be beneficial to let go of some of the things that are causing stress, especially if they can’t be controlled. Make a list of everything that may be contributing to your stress level, and look for those factors you can reduce or eliminate. “Some people find their daily stress lessens when they disengage from television news programming, for example” says Dr. Anderson. “They realize they cannot control many of the events being talked about, which tend to be overwhelmingly negative and worrisome.”
Take care of yourself
Exercise, eat fresh and healthy foods, get an appropriate amount of sleep, avoid alcohol in excess, make time for hobbies you enjoy, and spend time with friends and loved ones.
Try yoga and/or meditation
Both are proven methods to relax the mind and reconnect with the body. If you don’t know how to do either of these practices, sign up for a class. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a structured combination of yoga and meditation specifically designed for relief of the physical symptoms of stress.
Consider cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety-related insomnia
“This technique is very effective at breaking the cycle of racing, repetitive thoughts,” Dr. Anderson says. “To prevent stress from negatively affecting your health and mind, it’s important to learn how to shut off the chatter, relax your body and be aware of your stress response triggers.”