By Jennifer Nelson for Next Avenue
Diana Zwinak, 53, was a teacher in a rural district outside Chicago when she developed Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder where antibodies chronically attack the thyroid. “Basically, my thyroid stopped functioning,” says Zwinak. Her doctor’s recommendation: “You have got to get rid of some of your stress.” The stress she was under was causing her adrenal system to shut down.
Zwinak’s doctor told her point-blank that she was taking years off her life. So, Zwinak did what many people faced with this news don’t — she took a good look at her stress and made a major change in her life.
She realized that teaching was no longer bringing her joy but, instead, contributing to her constant stress. On top of that, Zwinak was commuting an hour and a half each day.
“So, I took my doctor’s advice and I resigned within the week,” she says.
Conditions like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, heart disease, thyroiditis and dozens of others have a component in common: Stress is often the trigger.
Ask anyone trying to get psoriasis under control, manage heart disease or suffering with anxiety, and you’ll hear that managing stress is one of their toughest health goals.
What if your health, like Zwinak’s, literally depended on de-stressing?
Too Much Stress Causes Health Problems
Zwinak’s doctor was shocked but proud that her patient took immediate action to reduce the stress in her life. “I don’t regret the decision,” Zwinak says. She has since gone on to create a business that helps teachers who are feeling demoralized or burned out to regain their enthusiasm.
“When people are stressed, they cannot participate in a healthy lifestyle,” says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
In fact, Goldberg says, people under great stress may drink too much, smoke or overeat in efforts to cope, which further worsens their health.
Goldberg mentions one heart condition for which stress plays a significant role: stress cardiomyopathy, or a stress heart attack.
“These are patients who come in with classic heart attack symptoms but whose EKGs (electrocardiograms) and test results show their arteries are clear,” she says. What’s happened is stress has brought on the symptoms of a heart attack, and “stress is an associated risk factor in heart disease,” Goldberg adds.
Goldberg, like Zwinak’s doctor, often tells patients they need to de-stress. She says, “people are welcoming when I bring it up,” and most say no one had ever told them it was that important.
“We all experience stress on a daily basis. It’s not stress that’s the problem; it’s what we do with it that causes health and psychological issues,” says Susan Petang, a certified mindful lifestyle and stress management coach and author of The Quiet Zone: Mindful Stress Management for Everyday People.
How to Address Your Stress
If your medical condition is worsened by stress, the first step is to identify your stressor. It could be work, a relationship or even your health condition that’s causing a vicious stress cycle —meaning that dealing with the condition stresses you out, which, in turn, worsens the condition.
Making changes related to stressors, like reducing work hours, distancing yourself from a stressful relationship or joining a support group for your health condition can put you on a stress-free path. But those kinds of changes might not be enough. You might also need to try one or more of Goldberg’s recommendations:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It’s a common type of talk therapy in which you work with a mental health counselor to uncover your stressors and develop a strategic plan. CBT implements relaxation techniques, helps you adjust unrealistic expectations and change thought patterns and self-talk that contribute to your stress.
- Breathing exercises. Deep breathing exercises send signals to the brain to help you calm yourself. A relaxation breathing app on your phone — such as Breathe2Relax— can teach you how.
- Exercise. Physical activity has been shown to slash stress by releasing relaxing brain endorphins, which reduce the perception of fear, anger and other stressful emotions.
- Yoga. Yoga combines a non-judgement philosophy (against yourself and others) with a body-mind connection. Yoga can help you reduce stress through movement and breathing to enhance your mood and reduce anxiety.
Petang has these additional suggestions to reduce stress and prevent the worsening of health conditions:
- Develop a meditation practice. “Mindfulness and meditation are being used to treat many disorders and diseases, and have been shown to create new, beneficial neural pathways in the brain,” Petang says. Meditation desensitizes the neural connections that make us feel upset and reactionary when something negative happens.
- Manage expectations and accept reality. By dealing with unrealistic expectations and learning to accept things as they are, you can reduce stress.
- Develop an attitude of gratitude. There is always something for which we can be grateful in every situation, even if it’s only that we had the strength to survive it.
“I am grateful to my doctor, who had the wisdom to tell me about the toll that ‘everyday’ stress was taking on my body, and to myself for having the courage to do what was right, even though it seemed like such a gamble at the time,” Zwinak says.
Jennifer Nelson is a Florida-based writer who also writes for MSNBC, FOXnews and AARP.
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