Like many people, I struggle with managing stress in my life. I tried meditating, but I found myself twitching impatiently, waiting for the tinkling chime I’d set on my phone to signal the end of my six minutes of enforced mindfulness. I gave adult coloring books a try, but discovered that I hate coloring. I don’t even like putting eye shadow on in the morning, that’s how much I hate coloring. The irony isn’t lost on me that I’m actually feeling pressured to reduce stress. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems counter-productive.
Nevertheless, my doctors highly recommend reducing stress, and it turns out for good reason. When you experience stress, positive or negative, your brain responds. Your blood pressure rises; your heart rate goes up. Your muscles get tense. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol flood your body to put all systems on survival alert. It’s the aptly named “fight or flight” mechanism to prepare your body to act, whether it’s to figure out how to spend all your lottery winnings (positive) or outrun a bear (negative).
We all experience stress simply through coping with the hassles of everyday life: work, kids, traffic, that guy ahead of us at Starbucks trying to order a “small”. While we may be annoyed or anxious for the moment, we typically get over it and all returns to normal pretty fast once we’re out of the situation. Although I’ll admit to holding a grudge about that “small” thing.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, keeps the fight-or-flight reaction going, all the time. For example, people fighting chronic illnesses as well as those who suddenly lose a loved one, live in war zones, or undergo trauma can be less able to dial back the body’s response to stress. Even “normal” everyday-life stress can be so pervasive and without let-up that it can have the same chronic effect.
With chronic stress, there is no clear signal that the threat has been neutralized. The hormones keep flowing; the blood pressure and heart rate don’t ease back to normal. Those under chronic stress might experience digestive problems, headaches, sleeplessness, depression, change in libido, muscle aches or other symptoms. Over the long term, this heightened response can cause or exacerbate serious health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, depression, and other conditions.
Poverty can be a major stressor for many people, including those who come to Mercy Health Clinic for help. Economic uncertainty, housing insecurity, poor nutrition, precarious employment, and even noisy living conditions contribute to chronic stress among those living in poverty. The CDC reports that 8.7% of people living below 100% of the federal poverty level (about $24,000 a year for a family of four) experience severe psychological stress, compared to 1.2% of those living at or above 400%. In other words, being poor is stressful and is bad for your health. To that end, depression screening is now a standard component of the performance metrics routinely tracked for Montgomery Cares safety-net clinics by the Primary Care Coalition. Over 97% of active Mercy Health Clinic patients receive depression screening.
Click here to learn more about the causes of stress and ways to reduce the impact of stress on your body. Said body will thank you. And if you decide to give coloring a go, let me know; I have a barely-used coloring book I’d be happy to pass along.
— Pam Saussy, Board Member