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Give Stress a Vacation

By Marge Dwyer
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center correspondent

If you’re packing the car for your summer vacation and are tempted to put in your laptop so you can check e-mails while you’re away, think again. Same thing goes for taking days off to wallpaper and paint your home: forget it. Summertime is the perfect time to put stress away and take a break.

"Leave the laptop and Blackberries at home. Don't plan to do work on your place. Tell yourself not to do it. You need that free time," Dr. J. Jacques Carter, an internal medicine expert in the Department of Medicine at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, tells his patients. "We all carry that stress with us. If you don't take a break and relax, your body still will be churning away. You won't come back rested and you will be less able to deal with work and home issues."

What’s more, exposure to chronic negative stress can lead to emotional and physical symptoms.

“I see stressed patients who go to bed at 10 p.m. and get up at 8 a.m. who say they feel tired and lack energy. They don’t realize it’s because of stress,” says Dr. Carter.

Even the body’s immune system can be negatively impacted by too much stress, such as when people get respiratory infections in the winter. Now researchers can measure some of the physiological impact of stress, confirming animal studies done decades ago showing a decline in the immune systems of rats subjected to chronic stress. Even some heart ailments have been linked to chronic stress.

That’s why taking time to relax is important.

“You don’t have to go on an expensive trip. You can just visit friends or family, as long as they don’t cause you stress,” Dr. Carter says.

He advises taking several breaks spread out through the year — perhaps one week a quarter — rather than just two weeks in the summer.

“Allow enough time to relax. A three-day weekend isn’t enough and neither is a three-hour tour of Boston Harbor,” he adds. “I always tell my patients stress in itself is not bad. It can be positive or negative depending on how we deal it. Some people are better able to handle it than others.”

One of the first steps is to learn to recognize the signs of stress. Some physical signs that it’s time to take a stress break include:

  • Not sleeping well
  • Always feeling tired and lacking energy
  • Inability to relax
  • Feeling uptight or pent up
  • Headaches and muscle tension
  • Stomach discomfort
  • Gastrointestinal upsets such as diarrhea and/or heartburn

Symptoms of emotional stress include:

  • Feeling jittery or anxious
  • Not eating well — grabbing fast food and getting indigestion from eating too quickly
  • Lacking enthusiasm to do anything
  • Mood changes like feeling melancholy

Stress Breakaway Tips

Dr. Carter offers the following tips to help you relax throughout the year:

The first step is to look at your support systems to see if improvements can be made. “You have to look at all the support systems of the person because people with the least support need the most protection from stress. What can be done to make life easier? Can a family member, someone outside the family or a clergy person help?”

Exercise is a great stress reducer. Build that trip to the gym into your calendar like it’s an appointment — say, one hour, three times a week.

Look at your life to see where the stress is coming from. Are there things you need to speak to your boss about? Is there excessive spending going on in the family that causes you to have to work two jobs? Are there issues with children that are not being addressed?

Look at your volunteer work and other commitments. Are you over committed? You think you are doing good, but it may be taking a toll on you. Maybe you can coach one team instead of three.

Do you have friends and are they supportive? Are you giving out more than you need to get back and creating a negative balance for yourself?

If you’ve tried these tips and nothing improves, medications might help. Even in the short run, medications can help, and then support can be added. “Medication can be helpful for mild depression associated with stress but it should not be the first step,” Dr. Carter says.

To schedule a consultation with the experts at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, call 1-800-667-5356.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted June 2013

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