Know when the stress is piling up too much

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Paying those bills: Financial worries is just one of the many stressors facing people these days. | Photo by Fotolia

When things get to be out of our hands, stress can start to take a toll on our minds and bodies.

Dr. Joseph Fanelli, MD, medical director of the Neurobehavioral Medicine Program at St. Catherine Hospital’s Centers for Mental Wellness, said people can know with certainty they aren’t alone in dealing with stress these days.

“I’ve been doing this almost 25 years,” he said. “And I would literally say that since the whole financial thing starting in 2008-2009, I see evidence of stress every day in a constant, never-ending way. I’ve never seen it for such a long time.”

The problem is, he said, so many troubles are beyond a person’s control. The financial stressors are very common, from managing debt and facing foreclosures to dealing with an ugly job market and hunting for work.

“You can be doing all you can. You can send out your resumes everywhere. But you’re waiting to hear back,” he said. “Or for people who are dealing with foreclosures, you’re doing all you can do, but you’re just waiting.

It’s that stress that hangs over your head. That’s really the most obvious cause.”

Piling on stress

Other issues that are out of a person’s control, such as lingering health problems in one’s self or loved ones, can trigger a great deal of anxiety.

“Chronic illnesses — the sense of waiting for the next straw — that’s a big one,” Fanelli said. “Things where you can’t be an active participant in what’s going on.”

Often, things people typically could easily handle start to become stressful when other out-of-their-control issues begin piling up.

“You get a couple things going on. There’s the bad economy, war, you hear about things like tornados, shootings, and there’s a sense of a pile-on,” he said. “We’re not made that well to deal with two or three stressors at a time.”

That these issues take a toll on people doesn’t come at much surprise.

Fanelli said experiments studying stress in animals show similar tendencies. Animals that were given unavoidable shocks — and became part of this constant phenomenon that they could not control — showed the equivalent of what causes stress and anxiety in people.

Stress goes beyond the brain and can have physical impacts on the entire body. Some people develop anxiety. Others develop ulcers. Eventually, stress can lead to heart problems.

“It’s a good idea to catch that before it happens,” Fanelli said.

Recognizing stress

To minimize the effects of stress, Fanelli recommended getting creative.

Since the biggest problems seem to come from things that are out of a person’s control, that person should try tackling things that can be handled, such as projects at home or hobbies.

“Sometimes in a psych unit, you see people making belt buckles and such,” he said. “You have a beginning and an end. You have a sense of control.”

Physical activity is also highly recommended for dealing with stress.

If those ideas don’t improve a stressful environment, there are ways to know if a person should seek further help.

Changes in grades for children can be signs of a problem, and irritability is a signal for both children and adults. Increased alcohol use can also be a warning sign.

One way to notice stress taking a toll on a person’s body is with sleep. When people start to develop insomnia, whether they’re lying there worrying and can’t fall asleep or waking up in the middle of the night with their brain spinning, that’s an indicator.

Stomach troubles can also come hand-in-hand with stress.

“People with stress over a longer time are at higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and even cancer sometimes,” Fanelli said. “You want to pay attention to these things.”

When the effects of stress become physical, or when a person notices serious insomnia or prolonged stomach issues, it may be a good idea to talk with a primary care doctor.

“They refer lots of patients to us,” Fanelli said. “We’re very aware lots of patients are going through this now. (Primary care doctors are) the best places to start.”