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Six ways to manage your stress

July 10, 2014

Stress is pervasive in America, and for the most part, it's bad for your health. Learn simple ways to cope with stress, and know when to seek medical care.

One quarter of Americans suffered a stressful experience in the past month, according to a new study, and half of all Americans experienced stress in the last year. That doesn’t surprise Karl Bernat, MD, an internal medicine doctor at Duke Primary Care Harps Mill in Raleigh.

“I would have thought it was higher because of the way the world is today. We see people with stress-related issues every day.”

Work loads, family dynamics, financial problems, medical concerns…the list of factors contributing to stress goes on and on. Knowing how to manage stress is important because it can make you very sick.

“Stress can lead to sleep problems, which, in turn, can lead to migraines,” Bernat says. It can cause anxiety and depression. And, when people experience stress, they often don’t take care of themselves, as they should. That, combined with poor lifestyle behaviors, such as smoking, alcohol use and poor eating habits, can cause chronic problems like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can increase your risk for heart disease. 

Little steps go a long way when it comes to reducing the impact stress has on your health and well-being. Here’s how you can get started:

  • Take short breaks. If your work environment or your home life is the cause of your stress, take breaks.  “Go for a walk at lunch, get out of the house, even if it’s just for 15 minutes,” Bernat says. Removing yourself from the stressful situation, even for a short time, will make you feel better.
  • Exercise regularly. “Physical activity releases endorphins, which are the body’s hormones that give us a natural high. They counteract the hormones associated with stress,” Bernat explains.
  • Get enough sleep. Typically people need 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night to feel well rested, but stressed out people rarely get enough. Set your sleep routine by going to bed at the same time each night, and waking up at the same time every morning. Follow this pattern on your days off too. Doing so will put your body into a natural rhythm that offsets the negative effects of stress.
  • Eat healthy. Bingeing on junk food will make you feel junky, says Bernat. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, which contain vitamins and minerals that are good for you and can balance against stress’s influence on your immune system.
  • Make time for yourself. If your schedule is overwhelming, carve out some “me” time. That includes spending quality time with friends and family, if that’s what you like to do. Learn meditation and practice relaxation breathing, take long baths, enjoy leisure activities – make time for whatever it is you like to do.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek medical care. There will be times you can’t beat stress on your own, says Bernat. If stress is interfering with your sleep and the things you enjoy doing, if you feel down, tearful, or constantly exhausted, see your doctor. He or she can help you get the care you may need.

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Duke internal medicine