By Gail Bayliss, MD
Even the word makes my heart beat faster, my breathing get quicker and shallower, my underarms prickle with sweat, and my muscles tense up. As an emergency medicine physician, I am acutely aware of the impact stress has on my life and others. Having a chronic disease makes the effect of stress even more powerful on my life.
Mild stress is essential for us to learn about the world and apply that knowledge in our lives. But long-term stress can have a significant negative impact on the mind and body. It’s like your body is “stuck in overdrive.”
Excess stress affects concentration in the working memory. It causes moodiness, irritability, and anxiety. Intense stress causes severe fatigue and sleep problems. It can also lead to headaches, nausea, abdominal pain, and a change in sex drive, among other symptoms.
Stress causes the release of cortisol and other hormones. Cortisol helps regulate the body’s response to stress, and short spurts of this hormone can limit inflammation. But too much cortisol weakens the immune system, which can cause infections, irritations, burning, itchy rashes, and slower wound healing. It is also known to disrupt sleep-wake cycles. All of this can severely worsen a chronic disease.
So how can we manage stress?
Life is stressful and always will be. Our diseases can be managed but not cured, so the better we can manage stress the better we will be able to manage our diseases. This doesn’t mean sitting in your favorite chair in front of a television at the end of the day, though. We must actively limit stress by taking steps to control our actions and emotions. Here are some things that can help:
- Get out in nature and breathe some fresh air. Even being driven through a park with the windows open can be refreshing. Better yet, take a walk in the woods.
- Move your body and stretch. This may mean walking or exercising, but even shimmying to music while you’re making dinner is movement.
- Eat the “rainbow,” meaning make sure you include lots of colorful foods in your diet, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid sugar as much as possible. Avoid all things artificial: flavorings, colors, preservatives, pesticides. And it’s best to choose whole foods over processed foods.
- Decompress, relax, unwind, and rest as needed. Practice breath control, deep breathing, and visualization techniques. Massage can also help.
- Get good sleep as much as possible.
- Connect with friends and loved ones in person rather than on social media. Social interaction is important, but too much online connection can cause more stress.
- Know when to ask for help from friends and family. And be sure to consult with your doctor and counselors when needed.
We can control our stress when we focus on the good in life! There are lots of ways to do this; choose techniques that you enjoy and work for you. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Keep a sense of humor and a “can-do” outlook. Be kind to yourself and others and forgive slip ups—your own as well as others’. You will find that less stress promotes resilience, emotional and intellectual growth, and decreased inflammation.
Gail Bayliss is an ER physician living in Houston, Texas. She was diagnosed with polymyositis in 2017 and joined TMA’s Board of Directors so she could use her experience to help myositis patients.