While stress is a natural part of life, there are strategies that can be used to manage it when it becomes dangerous or overwhelming. Learn about the harmful effects of prolonged stress, how to recognize certain symptoms of bad stress, as well as techniques to manage stress from UT Health Physicians’ primary care providers, Maria Fernandez Falcon, MD, FAAP, pediatrician; Cynthia Cantu, DO, internal medicine; and Ellen Shrouf, PhD, psychologist.
The toll stress takes
Prolonged stress can lead to burnout, which means that every day a person feels emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted and has a decreased sense of accomplishment. Prolonged stress can also lead to depression, generalized anxiety disorder and other mental health conditions.
“One common condition is generalized anxiety disorder that occurs when stress and worry become hard to control and begin impacting someone’s social life and even their work,” Dr. Cantu said. “Stress can also cause someone to feel down or depressed, no longer enjoy the things they used to and could eventually lead to major depressive disorder.”
“Stress can cause people to constantly worry about things that may otherwise be trivial,” Dr. Shrouf said. “So emotionally, stress can present itself as irritability or anger and steal energy when a person is constantly worrying or feeling mad or sad. This affects mental health because it doesn't leave you with the energy to do what you want to be doing.”
Other symptoms of stress such as changes in weight, high blood pressure and developing stress coping behaviors involving substance abuse can lead to serious health issues over time. If these symptoms persist, they increase the risk for stroke, heart attack, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease or lung disease.
“Stress may also cause someone to lose sleep because they find it hard to relax at bedtime or may cause them to wake up multiple times throughout the night,” Dr. Cantu said. “So a cycle begins where a person who is not sleeping well often will have decreased energy and poor concentration that impacts their quality of life.”
While stress is a natural part of life, there are some symptoms that adults can look out for to help them recognize if stress is having a serious negative effect on their life. The effects of bad stress can display themselves in many ways, including headaches, difficulties in focusing on tasks, weight changes, nausea, stomach pains, diarrhea, high blood pressure, fatigue, anxiety or sexual problems. It is also important to recognize maladaptive behaviors one begins using to cope with stress, such as increasing alcohol intake, smoking, vaping and over-eating or not eating healthy in general.
“Not all stress is bad,” Dr. Fernandez Falcon said. “Good stress, or eustress, will help us to reach important goals—like the stress we feel when we need to study for an important exam or when we organize a plan for vacation. However, knowing the symptoms of stress and the ways to avoid or diminish the effects of bad stress, or distress, is important for people to know.”
In children, similar symptoms to adults may present themselves when faced with stressful situations, such as headaches, fast breathing, nausea or stomach pain. However, children react to stress in different ways depending on their age, temperament and environment. If stress persists, they can develop fatigue, changes in appetite, loss of sleeping, nightmares, irritability, anxiety and depression.
“Distress in children could lead to behavioral and academic difficulties at school and at home,” Dr. Fernandez Falcon said. “Parents should be alert and consult with their kids’ health care provider if any of these symptoms persist and if they affect and disrupt their usual activities and interactions with others.”
In both children and adults, learning about different ways to avoid or decrease bad stress may help to prevent serious mental and physical conditions.
For individuals dealing with stress, there are certain techniques that can be practiced to help manage it. Workouts for your mind and body can help, such as meditation or mindfulness exercises, as well as physical exercise. Physical exercise improves quality of life, reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression, improves sleep and has other health benefits as well.
“Many people only respond to stress when it's spiking,” said Dr. Shrouf. “Instead, it’s better to start practicing calming techniques that can get the body’s system in better balance. If practiced frequently, the overall level of stress or anxiety is kept at a manageable level and when it spikes, it’s not as hard to pull it back down.”
A healthy diet and the proper amount of sleep each night are other ways to cope with stress and help avoid its harmful symptoms. For parents, it’s important to take care of themselves first to be able to take of their kids.
More help for those with high stress
For those who feel overwhelmed and are having difficulty coping with stress, UT Health Physicians can help. Our primary care team provides access to trusted and experienced doctors and behavioral health specialists, with various locations throughout San Antonio and the Hill Country.
Appointments are available Monday through Saturday. To learn more about primary care or to make an appointment, call 210-450-9000 or visit www.uthealthcare.org/primarycare.