CATES: Stress management is vital, especially during a pandemic

I was so fortunate last week to spend some time with several ECISD current and retired teachers in the Delta Kappa Gamma sorority. We talked about the many changes, the challenges, and current recommendations on the best ways to stay safe as we are having yet another wave in this awful pandemic. One thing we talked about just a little bit was how stressful this is on everyone, not just for those of us in healthcare.

I have such admiration for teachers every day, but especially so during this challenging time. They have the incredible challenge of teaching our young people with the career they have chosen, and the last two years have had the added burden of changing platforms and not knowing if they are going to be live one day or virtual the next. They also know that every platform change has an almost exponential negative effect on the learning of their kids.

The stress on our teachers is incredibly high. It seems like that for everyone I speak to lately, unprecedented stress in their lives. I am constantly amazed at the pervasive damage COVID has caused and continues to cause in everything from empty shelves at the grocery store to how people discuss issues on social media and in person. The stress of the moment with COVID but also the stress of the unknown on where the damage COVID is causing will lead next affects all of us.

Stress that is not dealt with in a productive way can become an accelerating downward spiral of negative outcomes. Out of control stress can lead to health issues, mental and emotional distress, and it can negatively affect relationships. All of which cause more stress. That is why it is so important in these trying times to really pay attention to stress management. That way you can get out of the negative cycle or better yet, avoid it altogether.

Stress is a normal reaction to the demands of life and in many situations can be a good thing. Stress is hard-wired into our brains so we can deal effectively with threats. It is our mental and physical alarm system. For instance, if a person is mugged, that alarm system in the brain speeds up the heart and respiratory rate. It floods the body with hormones like adrenaline that also increase heart rate and increase blood pressure. That increase in heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure make sure there is an abundance of oxygen available to tissues. Those hormones also trigger a system to move blood away from your digestive system and more towards the muscles and brain. The brain narrows its focus to only that threat. All those things allow you to run from the threat or fight the threat.

This alarm system, however, is meant to be a short-term thing. A threat like a mugger is generally over quickly. Unfortunately, it’s hard for that alarm system to distinguish between the short-term threat of a mugger, and the long-term threat of losing a home because of a job loss. The body still reacts the same, the brain still maintains that narrow focus.

In the long term, those reactions can cause damage. Physical damage because of the high heart rate and blood pressure plus all the other effects of the hormones coursing through the system, mental and relationship damage because with the narrow focus on the threat, other things, often important things, are missed.

The Mayo Clinic recommends the first step in stress management is identifying triggers. Think about the things that make you feel angry, tense, worried or irritable. Look for physical signs too like headaches or stomach upset with no medical cause. Things like job losses, relationship problems, money problems are easy to identify as stressors, but often it’s the small things that add up, like traffic jams, being late to meetings, getting kids to school every day. Even positive things like marriages and engagements, promotions, being able to finally buy something you have been saving for can add to stress.

Once you have identified your triggers, the next step is to identify what you can control with those triggers. For instance, if you have trouble sleeping at night, change your sleep routine with things like eliminating light sources and noise sources. If you can’t control things, think about how you are reacting to them. Remember you don’t have to deal with things on your own, and that it’s okay to ask for help with overwhelming tasks. Relaxation techniques, exercise, and self-care are also good ways to deal with stress.

Finally, speak to your primary health care provider about the stress in your life if techniques like those above aren’t helping. It’s okay to take medications, speak to a professional counselor or both. Often people think that is a sign of weakness, but it’s not. The people who find ways to not let things overwhelm them and continue to move forward and support their families and others are those who are strong. Let your primary health care provider help find the best option for you to stay strong in the face of stress during these incredibly challenging times.