Distress and Your Health

17

We are living in unprecedented times of life-altering events accompanied by uncertainty and added strains. With all that is going on today in life, you (or someone you love) could be experiencing distress and not realize it. Emotional discomfort is often called distress and there are many different ways that you can feel uncomfortable from being hot, cold, tired, in pain, hungry, unwell – or, fear of the unknown or dealing with a lot change to feelings of regret or anger – and the list goes on.

These times are very dynamic, and they can take an emotional toll on you, your family, friends, associates, and those in your community. And while a lot has been said and written on how to take special care during this time, I am joining with healthcare professionals to encourage everyone to understand when it comes to medical matters, what you think and feel — and how you manage your feelings — can affect your overall health. There is a heart, mind, and body connection.

Emotions are inextricably linked to every life experience, and your well-being. And, negative emotional responses to life situations can lead to tense muscles, pain, headaches, stomach problems, loss of sleep and focus, change of appetite, as welI as elevated blood pressure and an increased chance of developing (or accelerating) heart disease–along with many other serious health problems. 

How your thoughts and feelings affect your health? 

Your brain produces substances that can improve your health. These substances include endorphins, which are natural painkillers, and gamma globulin, which strengthens your immune system.

On the other hand, negative thoughts and emotions can actually keep your brain from producing some of these chemicals that helps your body heal. That doesn’t mean you should blame yourself for feeling down or having illnesses beyond your control. But your thoughts and state of mind are resources you can use to have a positive effect on your health.  Studies show time and time again that what your brain produces depends in part on your thoughts, feelings, and expectations. 

Thus, taking time in consideration of your emotional wellbeing can help you to stay healthier, overall. 

Recognize Your Feelings: These times have presented pain in uncertainty, loss, change – and it is important to recognize that. Too many people have a habit of running from painful emotions or “stuffing” or compartmentalizing their feelings. Keeping them inside can make you feel worse.

Recognize your emotions and understand why you are having them. Take time – by sorting out the causes of sadness, stress, and anxiety in your life can help you manage your emotional health. 

It’s okay to let your loved ones know when something is bothering you. However, keep in mind that your family and friends may not always be able to help you deal with your feelings appropriately. At these times, ask someone outside the situation for help. Try asking your family doctor, a counselor, or a religious advisor for advice and support to help you improve your emotional health.

Key Understandings: While working through your emotions it’s good to know —  

Depression: Symptoms include a persistent feeling of sadness, fatigue, insomnia and loss of interest. Depression affects how you feel, think and behave–and it can interfere with your normal day-to-day activities. The truth of the matter is that much of what we are living through today and being asked to do is unscripted, unknowable, and uncertain. And that can lead to depression. 

Grief.  A natural response to loss, with both psychological and physical implications. Losing a loved one, health, financial stability or sense of safety, are some causes (as are divorce, loss of a friendship, or other relationship). 

When you suffer a loss, you experience major stress, perhaps even depression, exhaustion, insomnia, physical weakness, difficulty thinking clearly or concentrating, social withdrawal, or the development of unhealthy habits. Grief can be accompanied by feelings of loneliness or isolation or feelings of “heartache” or “heartbreak.” 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Triggered by a traumatic event, PTSD can result in emotional, behavioral, and physical reactions and changes that increase the risk of having a heart attack. Those suffering, may engage in risky or unhealthy behaviors to help them cope and emotionally regulate. 

Anxiousness: Anxiety is a normal reaction to uncertainty and things that may harm you—but, too much can cause harm. Feeling stressed and fearful every day takes a toll on your health and well-being, very quickly. Mounting worries and fear can lead to panic attacks and people who already experience a lot of anxiety may find their anxiety worsening.

Loneliness: The gap between what you desire from social relationships and what you actually receive from social relationships is loneliness. “Physical” distancing to prevent this highly contagious virus has unfortunately led to “social” distancing and decreased human touch and social interaction. When it is long-lasting, it can affect more than just your mental well-being. Loneliness ranks high as a risk factor for heart disease and it can cause or exacerbate high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and even Alzheimer’s.

Hostility: Research shows that anger and hostility are significantly associated with both a higher risk for coronary heart disease in healthy individuals and poorer outcomes in patients with existing heart disease. Conversely, studies have found that suppressed anger impairs the heart’s ability to vary its rate in response to daily stress. 

Action: The goal is to appropriately have methods to express your emotions.

  • Know there is a significant mind-body connection and try to recognize your emotions and understand why you are having them – sorting out the causes of sadness, stress, anger, and anxiety in your life can help you manage your overall health, positively
  • Identify what triggers your stress (24-7 news cycle, social media, toxic relationships, overscheduling) and practice stress management skills to change what you can, adapt or accept it. 
  • Don’t ignore symptoms or concerns and talk to your physician if you feel like your emotional factors are not being managed in a healthy manner. They may refer you to a trained mental health professional that can help you  
  • Create a wise support team around you—friends, family, co-workers, health professionals. Talk with them about your feelings. 
  • Balance – It’s important to deal with negative feelings, but try to focus on the positive things in your life, too. Practice gratitude, shifting your perspective from what is not right in your life, or lacking, towards what is good. 

Understand that the mind-body connection can have tremendous positive effects. When you are mentally strong—able to regulate emotions, manage thoughts, and behave in a positive manner—this can be an effective “medicine.” You are more likely to eat well, be physically active, sleep better, refrain from risky behaviors (not smoke or drink in excess), relax, and manage your stress. Take good care!

Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures. 

She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.

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