UT Southwestern Q&A: What is stress and how can we manage it? – UT Southwestern

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DALLAS – Oct. 18, 2023 – Everyone experiences stress from time to time. And while brief bouts can be a good thing, prolonged or chronic stress can have negative effects on your overall health.
The causes can be many. This year, money is the most common factor negatively affecting Americans’ mental health, according to a recent survey from Bankrate. Other top factors include health, current events, relationships, and work. Together, these stressors may cause feelings of anxiety, worrisome thoughts, loss of sleep, and depression, the survey showed.
To gain perspective on stress and how it affects us, we spoke with Mary Turner, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry and a member of the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Dr. Turner, a licensed psychologist, specializes in stress reduction and anxiety management and helps individuals going through major life changes and trauma.
Good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress) both elevate a hormone called cortisol in your bloodstream. Cortisol is a great kick-starter, providing a burst of energy for challenges like planning a wedding or dealing with a family crisis. However, prolonged elevation of cortisol can lead muscles and organs to become fatigued and the brain to lose focus. It is important to plan brief, relaxing diversions that can restore energy and clarity to successfully navigate stressful situations.
Heart disease, asthma, obesity, diabetes, headaches, depression, and anxiety are just some of the health issues affected by prolonged stress. Pause before you react to stress-driven impulses like eating, drinking, or avoiding certain circumstances to cope with the unpleasant feeling. It only takes a minute to listen to a favorite song, take a few deep breaths, do a couple of stretches, or step outside and feel the air on your skin to give your body and brain a break.
Stress creates a sense of urgency, forcing the brain to rely on reaction and reflex rather than experience and reason. Elevated cortisol levels send a signal to your brain that there is no time to think about things. This makes it more difficult to manage complex tasks. If you are not actually running from a tiger, it is more efficient to take a deep breath and rely on facts and knowledge than to react to an emotion.
Alcohol interferes with the brain’s ability to be alert and on guard. The first glass of wine or cold beer brings an almost immediate (but artificial) sense of calm. But whatever stressors you had when you picked up the drink are still there. Your logical brain knows this, but with each drink, the toxic effect of alcohol impairs reasoning and judgment. The urge to have a second drink to prolong the calm grows stronger and judgment grows weaker.
Stress is what we feel when cortisol levels increase. While cortisol is a powerful anti-inflammatory, prolonged elevations are detrimental to our body’s ability to recover from daily wear and tear. Loss of resiliency in our tissues, most obviously reflected in dry, crepey skin, also takes place in our vital organs. Thus, it is important to take breaks, use your days off, play with the dog, and give your body a chance to recover.
Stress can lead to poor sleep, fatigue, brain fog, and slow recovery from minor injuries and infections. It can also create an overall negative outlook on life and a growing sense of apathy. Some prolonged stressful events cannot be avoided. Major life changes often take months to resolve. During those periods, it can be helpful to get proper nutrition, enjoy fresh air, take walks, and talk to friends.
Your body secretes stress hormones in response to a difficult or threatening situation. The most useful strategy is to take a deep breath and break the tasks ahead of you into their smallest components. What is required of you in this minute? One small action completed is the first step to overcoming stress’s powerful inertia. When the task becomes manageable, the stress hormones dissipate.
When stress, anxiety, anger, or avoidance become your immediate response to situations others seem to manage easily, you may have developed a distorted view of yourself, other people, or the world. When enduring a long, difficult, or emotionally challenging period, it is easy to lose confidence in yourself, to see other people as unreliable, and to think of the world as a difficult or dangerous place. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective tool to teach you to challenge the distortions and see yourself and the world in a more realistic fashion.
Stress is a biochemical reaction that can help your body and brain cope with a challenge. In cases where stress has become second nature, it is not always possible to talk yourself into a calmer state. You may have gone weeks or months without sleeping, have no appetite, feel fatigued, lack focus, misplace things, or forget appointments, but there are still things you need to do. Medication can interrupt the stress and anxiety signals and give you a break. It is important to use that pause in your stress and anxiety to examine how you developed the problem and learn more effective strategies for managing what life throws at you.
About UT Southwestern Medical Center  
UT Southwestern, one of the nation’s premier academic medical centers, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty members have received six Nobel Prizes and include 26 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 20 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 3,100 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in more than 80 specialties to more than 120,000 hospitalized patients, more than 360,000 emergency room cases, and oversee nearly 5 million outpatient visits a year.
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