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Ask the IU Expert

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Ask the IU Expert

We all experience stress in our lives – and the holiday season is no exception. Dr. Lena Franklin, family medicine physician at IU Health, discusses how to spot those serious stress symptoms and how to stay healthy this time of year.

What are the physical symptoms of stress?

Feeling overwhelmed or feeling the urge to explode or run away are typical symptoms of stress. We’ve been taught to stay cool and maintain our composure, which takes a lot of energy and can result in exhaustion and difficulty sleeping. Many stressed-out patients will come see me with a variety of physical symptoms: shakiness, inability to sleep or sleeping too much, fatigue, lack of motivation. Insufficient sleep compounds the problem. Stress can also cause elevated blood pressure, chest pain and heart palpitations – symptoms that can mimic signs of a heart attack, prompting trips to the emergency department.

In addition, stress can exacerbate your bad habits. For example, some people eat more when they’re feeling overwhelmed, while others turn to smoking cigarettes. Stress smoking is particularly troublesome in the winter months because it can trigger more respiratory illnesses. The three stress hormones that help us deal with stress – cortisol, epinephrine and oxytocin – can actually conspire against us to raise blood pressure, blood sugar and make your immune system less effective against foreign invaders.

How often do you see stress in your patients?

Very few of my patients don’t feel stressed in one way or another. People can usually identify what is stressing them out, but it’s rarely just one culprit. In some cases, it’s a bad situation at work, an additional relative living at home or a relationship that isn’t going well—these are more difficult to identify because people don’t want to accept that a loved one is causing them stress. A lot of times, I need to have a conversation with the patient in order to dig deep and find the root cause.

How do men and women experience and deal with stress differently?

In my practice, women tend to stress more about the details of life – the way things look, outward appearance, relationship issues, how they are perceived socially. Men tend to be more concerned about how they measure up – demands at work, a sports score, their other successes versus their buddy’s. In my experience, women are more likely to reach out to their social network for support. Men are less likely to talk about their stress, and instead, are more likely to seek an activity or escape from it such as sports, hitting the treadmill or other hobbies.

Some stress is worse around the holidays – how can stress be managed this time of year?

During the holidays, consider what specifically causes you stress. A lot of stress this time of year involves finances- buying gifts, decorating your house, hosting family parties. Look for cost-saving ways to celebrate like making your own gifts out of ornaments, blankets or food. A lot of patients tell me the holiday shopping crowds stress them out. To that, I suggest shopping online or, if unavoidable, ask for a family member’s help. Change up your traditions – perhaps you don’t host dinner at your house for the 10th year in a row or have everyone chip in to make it happen. Asking for help, being able to say no, knowing what you can handle and drawing that line are all great ways to cope. Talk to your doctor if you need help sorting out your stress.

There can also be holiday stress due to depression because this is often a time of year that reminds people of loved ones who have passed away. I can never say enough about talking to your family members or asking your doctor for help because there are ways we can help you manage these difficult stressors.

Dr. Franklin’s practice is located at Methodist Medical Plaza South, 8820 S. Meridian St., Suite 200 Indianapolis, IN 46127. You can make an appointment at (317) 865-6750.

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