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Stress — and Its Impact on Health

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We all know we can’t avoid stress in our lives, but it’s also important to recognize that recent studies continue to confirm that stress, especially chronic stress, is strongly linked to many diseases such as heart disease, cancer, most digestive disorders, strokes, auto-immune disease and even dementia. And scientists have also confirmed that stress can cause critical areas of the brain to shrink and some neuro-connections in areas of the brain to actually die. There is also growing evidence that a diagnosis of serious disease is often preceded by a year or two of chronic stress or a very stressful event. Of course, in addition to diseases, there are also everyday symptoms that are caused by stress: irritability, depression, anxiety, fatigue, sluggishness, decreased or increased appetite, headaches and a whole spectrum of digestive problems. Stress also can cause us to eat poorly. I notice that clients under heavy stress tend to eat more simple carbohydrates. They tend to rely on quick-fix meals, eating on the run and often skip their exercise routine. This creates a viscous cycle of worsening symptoms and worsening diet.

Stress is a part of normal life. The most common type of stress is experienced when things don’t go as we’ve planned. But stress is also caused by our rapidly growing workloads, either in school or in our professional lives. Stress can also be caused by problems in relationships, financial worries, health issues, and social isolation. Even certain personality traits can contribute to our stress levels. For example, perfectionism, or a chronically negative worldview can add to our stress.

I find that a growing cause of stress in our modern day lives is just plain having too much on our plates. There are always more e-mail and voicemail messages to answer. Organizations seem to be putting more and more demands on employees to work longer hours and produce more. Cell phones and e-mail have added pressure to be available 24/7. More Americans than ever are taking less vacation time, just to avoid the stress of having to work harder before they leave and the terror of the work piling up while they are gone. Next add in the stress of taking care of aging parents along with the growing demands of helping with children’s schoolwork and you have the perfect conditions for becoming overly stressed. Let’s face it – it’s just not possible to catch up! We have to accept and learn to live with going to sleep night after night with many projects unfinished. The days of getting everything on our “to-do list” done… are done.

I have also discovered in working with many clients, that women in particular have trouble taking time for themselves, especially women who are mothers. Many of the women I work with feel guilty taking the time they need, especially when their partners, children or other family members have unmet needs. The result is they never seem to get around to fulfilling their own needs. It seems to me that learning to make ourselves as much a priority as our families, is not only a great strategy for reducing our stress and improving personal health and happiness, its also a great way to model for our children how to become a happier, more balanced adult.

What can we do about it? I’ve learned as an entrepreneur (and it hasn’t been an easy lesson) that at the end of the day, I must simply close the door of my office and leave some things unfinished. I’ve become much better at prioritizing. I’ve become much better at having fun; balancing a social life with work and doing other things I love in addition to my work, even though there is always more work I can do. The next article will address some ways to do just that.