Working long hours bookended by long commutes, Houstonians are more stressed than average. In fact, Houston is the most stressful city in the country for workers, according to a recent study by LLC.org, which provides market research and resources for entrepreneurs.
The study found that workers in Houston are on the road for nearly an hour a day, and one in three leave for work before 7 a.m. Meanwhile, the income growth rate in Houston — 4.5% — trails the national average of 6.2%, while the percentage of workers without health insurance — 30.4% — is nearly triple the national average of 10.5%. Between traffic and financial worries, we have a lot on our minds. But stress doesn’t have to dominate our lives, says Dr. Mariam Wahby, a licensed therapist and the manager of behavioral health education with Memorial Hermann’s Behavioral Health Services.
“Stress is not something that we can ever eliminate completely. But we can find ways not to let it overcome us or let it cause us long-term harm,” she says.
Stress affects our bodies in ways that can do real damage if we don’t manage it. “Stress can have somatic symptoms, including headaches, stomachaches, back pain and neck pain,” says Dr. Wahby. “When you’re dealing with traffic, you can probably feel the muscle tension, or your heart rate rising and your palms getting sweaty. Those are clear signs of stress. Acute stress like the kind we might experience in traffic tends to subside without causing any serious health issues. But when stress becomes chronic, it can play a contributing role in conditions like heart disease and diabetes that affect your health in the long term. So stress isn’t something we can afford to ignore.”
Stress doesn’t just come from traffic and work, of course. Some relationships can be stressful; so can taking care of others and managing our own health. “If I have a chronic illness — say Crohn’s disease — and I have regular flareups, that can be a constant source of stress,” Dr. Wahby says. “Sometimes the stressor is co-parenting with an ex. That stress is always going to be there, and it will take some strong coping skills to manage it.”
Stress hormones trigger our “fight-or-flight” response, making our heartbeat faster and our breathing shallower. That makes us feel like we’re in imminent danger, even if the trigger is something physically harmless, like a work deadline. One way to overcome this feeling is to counteract the physiological response. Taking deep breaths will slow our heart rate and reduce the physical sensations of stress. You can also comfort yourself with soothing self-talk, Dr. Wahby suggests.
“You could frame it as, ‘I’m feeling really overwhelmed right now, and that tells me I need to take a break,’” she says. “As opposed to, ‘I’m overwhelmed; I can’t handle this.’ What we say to ourselves changes what stress does to our body. Try telling yourself, ‘I’m OK, I’m not in any danger.’”
You can also prepare yourself in advance for moments you know will be stressful. Try taking inventory of your day: Are there certain times when you’re more stressed? Do certain relationships or situations trigger a stress response? “That can help you prepare for those stressful events so that you’re not going in already at a 7 out of 10 stress level,” says Dr. Wahby. “You want to go into those at your lowest point already so you can manage the stress that comes up. When it gets to the point where you’re feeling discomfort, try taking deep breaths. Maybe take five minutes to go center yourself. Walk around, call a loved one — whatever you need to do to feel grounded again.”
Stress can be sneaky, however. Sometimes it creeps into our lives gradually, and we don’t even notice its effects. Some signs of chronic stress include feelings of forgetfulness or “brain fog,” as well as changes in our sleep and our appetite. “Over time, we can adapt to a higher baseline of stress, and you may not even see it as something abnormal. It can be hard to recognize that your sleep has changed, or maybe your diet has changed,” Dr. Wahby says. “When you’re getting barraged by stress hormones over a long period of time, your body craves comfort. You might reach for cake or greasy foods, since that’s what we often connect with happiness and a sense of relief or reward.”
If you think you might be experiencing chronic stress, it’s important to mention it to your primary care physician, since it can take a significant toll on your physical health. That doesn’t mean your doctor needs to prescribe medication, however. Changing how we respond to stress is an important first step, Dr. Wahby says.
“That can start with simply recognizing that there will be things that deplete us, so we can find meaningful ways to fill ourselves back up. It could be journaling, it could be coloring, going for a walk, listening to music — it doesn’t have to mean going to a spa or going to the gym. It doesn’t need to cost anything. It could be something you can do at your desk. If you try to add something that’s expensive or hard to do, then it can backfire and become stressful in itself,” she says.
Taking breaks — meaning going on vacation when you can, as well as taking five- or 10-minute breaks during your work day — is key. You may also be able to find small ways to set yourself up for a less stressful day.
“Look at yourself as if you’re looking at a friend: What could I do to help them? Could being better organized take away a layer of stress? Is there a way I could reduce the chaos in the morning so I can leave for work earlier and not add an extra layer of stress by running late?” Dr. Wahby says.
Limiting whatever stress we can and building coping skills for the rest can keep it from taking over, Dr. Wahby says.
“Stress is really commonplace, but it doesn’t mean we have to take it for granted and let it harm us,” she says. “It is a normal part of life, but we can build a relationship with it and manage it just like any other challenge in our lives.”
For more information, visit memorialhermann.org/services/specialties/heart-and-vascular/healthy-living/wellness/keeping-calm-under-stress
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