Handling Stress - A Guide for Caregivers

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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 result 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.

How can individuals reduce stress and restore a healthy balance?

Life balance and personal happiness do not necessarily depend on earning more money at work or buying more luxury items for the home. Other things can have a more important impact on our well-being. Our age and what stage of life we are currently experiencing affect what makes us happy, providing life’s satisfactions as does our genetic make-up, personality and upbringing.

Life balance is always changing as we navigate through our world, and much of the aspects that we need to address are largely ignored as we place major emphasis on making appropriate career choices. Consequently, throughout our lives, we don’t address the issues which actually determine our own personal life balance and happiness. Yet, life balance and happiness can be managed and attained, if we know the components and the causes of our own well-being. Life balance can, therefore, be understood, planned and achieved, just like any other important life’s aim.

How do you know when to ask for help?

Most of the time normal levels of stress can be managed but sometimes you may need to get professional help before a situation is completely out of control. Such resources as a family doctor, mental health professionals, clergy, or counseling centers, can help in dealing with extreme levels of stress and the physical and emotional trauma that often accompanies them.

Before your problems become too big to handle, find a trained, skilled counselor to help you cope with the crisis. If you visit your family physician, he or she can help determine if your stress is due to an anxiety disorder, a medical condition, or both. He or she can help refer you to a mental health professional.

Crisis Indicators are listed below and should be considered warning signs of emotional stress. This is the time for you to seek outside help:

  • You experience a marked decline in work or school performance.
  • You are depressed. Signs include difficulty falling asleep, waking a lot during the night and too early in the morning, or sleeping constantly, or constantly crying for no reason, fatigue, inability to concentrate, change in appetite.
  • You have a sustained withdrawn mood or behavior.
  • You have suicidal thoughts or the urge to hurt somebody.
  • You hit, shove, or kick your spouse or your spouse physically abuses you.
  • You discipline your child too harshly.
  • You have an obsessive preoccupation with food and fear of becoming obese with no relationship to actual body weight.
  • You engage in self-destructive or dangerous behavior.
  • You hear voices or see things.
  • You feel overwhelmed.
  • You feel that you are unable to cope with the demands of daily life
  • You misuse alcohol or drugs.
  • You need someone to talk to.

If you feel your situation is an emergency, call a crisis hotline or go to your nearest emergency room.

Please realize that the contents are solely my opinion. Do not consider the suggestions as any form of therapy nor professional counseling advice. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, service with a competent professional should be sought.


Ann Gatty, Ph.D. is a certified teacher, mentor, author and organizational strategist. Through her website, www.stress-management-4-women.com, Dr. Gatty coaches women in stress management strategies, life skill development, and building life transitions to balance personal and professional goals. Previously she designed and taught college courses in education and leadership. In addition, Ann has extensive experience working with non-profit and for profit organizations. This background gives her insights into the many challenges women have balancing professional and personal responsibilities. Ann now dedicates her coaching practice to helping women, both on-line and face-to-face, during their periods of life transition and/or finding ways to maximize their potential as women entrepreneurs. She is the author of Discovering God’s Recipe for a Healthy Body, Heart and Soul. Ann Gatty earned a Ph.D. in Instruction and Learning from the University of Pittsburgh, School of Education. She is married, the mother of two young adult boys, and shares her home with her husband, two Great Danes and a Bassett Hound.

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