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Published on November 23, 2015

Coping with the American pressure cookerCoping with the American pressure cooker

How many times a day does someone tell you they are stressed out? How often do you say it yourself?

Here’s the bottom line: We live in a nation of people who take on too much and move too fast. And it’s taking a toll on our health.

“I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by their own life,” said Elissa Thompson, MD, a cardiologist at Cape Cod Healthcare’s Cardiovascular Center. “They get stuck and feel like they can’t get out of their own way. That feeling of despair or helplessness needs to be addressed.”

And stressing quickly turns physical, said Dr. Thompson, who is medical director of the cardiac rehabilitation program at Cape Cod Hospital. Being stressed turns on your sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the fight or flight response and releases the hormone adrenaline. That’s fine in short bursts but harmful over time, because adrenaline’s primary job is to increase your heart rate and blood pressure.

“That puts undo stress on the system,” she said. “If you are feeling overwhelmed or like your life is out of control, it’s a really important thing to discuss with your primary care physician because it absolutely adversely affects your health in the long run.”

The American Heart Association warns that stress creates aches and pains, tires us, interrupts our sleep and causes depression, anxiety and a host of other problems. They’ve also come up with a list of warning signs that signal you are not coping with stress in a healthy manner.

  1. Do you eat, smoke or drink alcohol to calm down?
  1. Do you speak and eat very fast?
  1. Do you rush around but not get much done?
  1. Do you work too much or try to get too many things done at once?
  1. Do you delay doing things you need to do?
  1. Do you sleep too little or too much?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may be harming your health.

Here are Dr. Thompson’s tips for coping with stress.

  • If you’ve had a rough day and the thought pops into your head, “I need a drink,” it’s actually the worst time to have a drink. Go for a walk with your dog, child or partner instead to calm down.
  • Sit down with other people for at least one healthy meal a day. Eat slowly, enjoying the flavors and have a real conversation.
  • If your company offers vacation days, make sure you actually take them.
  • Don’t use the TV as a means to relax. Television shows and commercials are full of people who look like they are living the perfect life. Being bombarded with images such as the perfect Hallmark Christmas can actually make us feel worse about our own lives.
  • Smoking is a complicated addiction to give up because the emotional addiction is often worse than the physical one. Not only does the drug make you feel good, but it leads to other bad habits. Every time you think you need a cigarette, take a 10-minute walking break instead of lighting up. Not only did you avoid smoking, but you’ve added the positive benefit of exercise.
  • Because the motions of smoking are also addictive, it helps to pick up a hobby like knitting as a physical distraction.
  • Find a group of friends who are willing to walk with you on a regular basis. It’s healthier to consider yourself part of a group rather than just an individual.
  • If you suspect depression or an anxiety disorder that you cannot control on your own, discuss the situation with your doctor and ask if there is a pharmaceutical solution that can help you feel less overwhelmed.

“The trick is to find ways to sooth yourself that are beneficial, rather than destructive,” Dr. Thompson said. “We put so much pressure on ourselves to achieve the unattainable.

“Instead we have to take care of ourselves and give ourselves a break. Do something good for yourself and something good will happen to you.”