Are you familiar with the expression “worried sick?” Feeling physically unwell when you are nervous or fearful is not just in your imagination. Mental stress can definitely increase the risks of and symptom flare-ups for a variety of diseases, including lupus, irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, rosacea, tension headaches, and asthma. It can also increase your risk for heart disease.
When you are in a stressful situation, your body releases two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones give you the mental focus and physical energy to respond to danger through “fight or flight.” When the cause of your stress is acute, or short term, these hormones dissipate quickly. Your heart might pound for a while, but as you realize you’re safe, your mind calms down and your body goes back to normal.
Chronic stress doesn’t go away, so those stress hormones build up in your body. Over time, unreleased stress can cause the cells in your body to weaken, which makes them more susceptible to damage and different diseases. Heart diseases like stroke, high blood pressure, and heart attack are closely linked to chronic stress. In addition, some people cope with chronic stress with behaviors like smoking, overeating (especially junk food), or drinking too much, which can increase the risk of heart disease.
Family caregivers have been found to be at higher risk than the general population for many health problems related to stress, such as depression, stroke, and heart disease. They often report back pain from the physical effort of moving their family members. And they often spend so much time taking their loved ones to doctor appointments that they miss their own. And of course, many caregivers find themselves missing work, vacations, and time with friends or for themselves. All of these can contribute to chronic stress.
But as a caregiver, you often can’t remove the primary source of stress in your life. How can you protect your health and your heart?
The best way to protect yourself is to recognize the warning signs of stress and figure out strategies to prevent stress from building to high levels. Experts say that a positive attitude can decrease your risk of health problems by as much as 20 percent! But switching from worry and negative thoughts to a more positive outlook can take some doing.
One technique that mental health therapists recommend is called cognitive reframing. Putting a photograph or picture in a different frame can change the way it looks. Reframing your thoughts can change how you perceive events and yourself. Instead of focusing on what you didn’t do or can’t do, focus on what you accomplished. Did you get all of your questions answered at a doctor’s appointment? Did you make your loved one smile? Did you relieve their pain?
If you tend to worry, don’t scold yourself when you realize you’re thinking about negative things or what you didn’t do. Instead, simply acknowledge your thoughts and move on. This is a part of mindfulness.
As your loved one’s health changes, you may experience extremely stressful times. If your loved one is receiving home care, speak to the nurse about caregiver support services. You may find that talking to a social worker is helpful; respite care services, such as those from a home health aide, can provide a break. Speak to your doctor about the possibility of depression, too. When you’re emotionally strong and mentally healthy, you’re more likely to view the world in a positive way and more likely to take care of yourself.