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Handling Stress - A Guide for Caregivers


Updated October 17, 2011

Handling Stress - A Guide for Caregivers

Ann Gatty Ph.D.

Ann Gatty

Stress can be a part of everyone’s life, but knowing how to handle it can make life easier for caregivers and their families. Dr. Ann Gatty shares her tips on how caregivers can identify what is causing stress, effective ways to reduce it and the warning signs of emotional stress.

What are symptoms of stress?

The symptoms of stress can be either physical or psychological. The term, stress, refers to how the mind and body respond to the demands being placed on it. Stress related physical illnesses, such as heart attacks, chronic headaches and stomach ulcers can result from long-term over-stimulation of a part of the nervous system that regulates the heart rate, digestive system and blood pressure. Long-term stress can wear down the body's reserves and leave you feeling depleted or overwhelmed and weaken the body's immune system causing these more severe physical problems. Emotional stress-related illnesses results from inadequate responses to major changes in your life situation such as losing a job, marriage, divorce, becoming a parent or handling educational school pressures.

Can stress make you ill?

Stress affects different people in different ways, but regardless, there is an effect. How does stress affect our health? Stress is the way our bodies and minds react to something which upsets our normal balance in life. An example of stress is the response we feel when we are frightened or threatened. During stressful events, our adrenal glands release adrenaline, a hormone which activates our body's defense mechanisms causing our hearts to pound, blood pressure to rise, muscles to tense, and the pupils of our eyes to dilate.

When a period of stress is prolonged, and not followed by some form of physical exertion to "relieve the pressure," several things can happen. Firstly, all forms of stress are cumulative, building up more and more pressure on the system and requiring more and "release" to restore balance. As a result, the levels of adrenaline build up in the body, which can cause chronic, long-term increases in blood pressure, heart rate, etc. These increases are damaging and require more repairs by the body to set them back to normal. The result of this is that stores of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and balancing hormones are used up.

This leaves your body in a dilemma. It needs to replace the things that are depleted. If your digestive system is not providing the nutrients, then the body robs them from other sources, and this adds to the body's imbalance. Body systems will shut down over time to conserve energy and nutrients. Clearly, this is not a good long-term situation, and the results are predictable. What started as a position of balance and "ease" becomes a position of imbalance and "dis-ease"! Heart disease is the number one killer of American women. High blood pressure, heart attacks, heart palpitations, and stroke may be stress related cardiovascular conditions.

What are signs of too much stress?

High levels of stress may indicate that you are under too much pressure or overwhelmed. Recognizing physical symptoms is the first step in learning whether you are under dangerous levels of stress. Sometimes it becomes easy to get caught up living life at a frantic pace, or trying to juggle many responsibilities simultaneously and you don’t find slow down long enough to notice these telltale signs of stress. Whether you are experiencing immediate, short-term stress, or you have been experiencing stress for a long time stress, your body and mind may be showing the effects. It’s important to learn how to recognize when your stress levels are too high for you to comfortably control. The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up. You get used to it. It starts to feels familiar – even normal. The signs of stress overload vary greatly depending on the person. Stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways, and everyone experiences stress differently.

What can people do to reduce stress at home?

A hobby is a healthy way to escape, even if it's for an hour, and give yourself a break from the reality pressures you have been dealing with all day. It is a diversion from all of the many responsibilities that crowd your mind from sun-up to sun-down. Adding a hobby allows you to forget about the stress of the day and focus on something else that you truly enjoy. Such a shift of attention is an opportunity to rejuvenate your body and soul. It gives you a fresh start to re-enter your sometimes chaotic world. Whatever the hobby, remember that not only are you clearing your mind of the daily tugs for your attention, but you are allowing your creativity to flourish doing something that is entertaining and satisfying for you.

A hobby allows you to explore your creative side. We all have talents within us and only we can discover this richness within. Consider what interests you and how you might want to spend your spare time. What have people commented about that you do well? Or if you are working behind a desk all day, or driving a car all day, maybe you want to find a type of exercise program--Zumba--Jazzercise--aerobics--tennis--that allows you to use some of that pent-up energy and flex the body muscles. If you work in a noisy office, maybe curling up with a book seems like a good idea. Maybe there are some crafts that you have been itching to try. Involving yourself in a hobby becomes not only a way to relieve stress, but a way to improve your overall well-being.

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