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Stress Management and Your Quality of Life

By Edel Jarboe

It has long been recognized that our health and our overall well-being are inextricably linked. Our physical health, income, community involvement, leisure-time activities, sleep habits, and various other social and psychological factors are all components of our quality of life, which exist, in a delicate balance.

In a study that appears in the March/April 2000 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined the influence of depression and anxiety on the development of hypertension (high blood pressure) in 3,310 men and women between the ages of 25 and 64 years. Results showed that the incidence of high blood pressure was highest in subjects with high levels of depression and anxiety. Researchers pointed out that depressed or anxious people might be more likely than others to engage in unhealthy behavior such as eating poorly, smoking, or drinking.

In a similar vein, various studies suggest that depression is linked to poorer overall life functioning more so than physical illness alone. Depression is also associated with increased risk of cardiovascular problems and has been found to predict poorer recovery from heart attacks, stroke, hip fracture, and disability. While depression typically goes hand-in-hand with poor health and physical decline, some studies indicate that depression may actually accelerate decline.

It can therefore be said that when our health suffers, so does our well-being and vice versa. Which factors negatively affect our health and well-being and how can we foster and protect both?

Life Events and Their Affect on Health & Well-Being

- 30 to 40 percent of those undergoing divorce report a significant increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety.

- A life-threatening accident or physical assault has been shown to lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

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- Poor physical health; troubled relationships with a romantic partner, parents, siblings, children, co-workers, friends, and neighbors; and taking care of elderly parents all lead to chronic stress.

- Health problems resulting from past sexual abuse include depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Emotional consequences include social isolation, self-destructive behavior, substance abuse, and increased risk of revictimization.

- Mental health consequences of domestic violence include depression, anxiety disorders, suicide, eating disorders, and substance abuse.

(Source: Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, Chapter 4. - "Adults and Mental Health")

Coping Mechanism #1: Your Self Esteem

Self-esteem is what you belief about yourself and your self-worth, skills, and ability to relate to others. It serves as a protective mechanism against stressful life events. This protective mechanism is also known as self-efficacy. Having confidence in one's own abilities to cope with adversity, either independently or by obtaining appropriate help from others is a major factor in surviving life's uncertainties.

One's sense of personal control, "I can do just about anything I really set my mind to." versus " I often feel helpless in dealing with the problems of life." for example, has been shown to have a real affect on health outcomes and has emerged as an important factor in maintaining good physical health. In a 1993 study conducted by Michael F. Scheier and Charles S. Carver at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, researchers found that an optimistic outlook on life promotes psychological and physical well-being.

Coping Mechanism #2: Family Ties

For better or worse, our families shape the quality of our lives. Beyond the shared emotional and financial ties, our family life influences our outlook on life, our motivations, our achievement styles, and how we cope with adversity.

For married couples, the quality of family life clearly depends upon the quality of the marriage. According to various studies, married couples have better overall well-being including lower levels of depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress than do people who are divorced, separated, single, or widowed. But the characteristic of marriage most important for psychological well-being is not the mere presence of a spouse but the emotional support that the spouse provides. Experts say that this support creates the sense of being loved and valued as a person, which is important in maintaining healthy self-esteem.

Coping Mechanism #3: Social Support

Not only do friendship, community, spiritual, and religious ties make us feel connected to other people, but they are also essential for positive mental health. Countless studies have shown that social support protects people from the negative mental health consequences of stressful life events, such as death of a family member or friend, loss of a romantic relationship, economic hardship, racism and discrimination, poor physical health, or assaults on physical safety. One study showed, for example, that among women who had recently experienced divorce or job loss, the presence of a close, confiding relationship strongly reduced the likelihood of developing clinical depression.

Researchers have also examined how the structure of people's social networks affects mental and physical health. Results show that access to social support helps individuals gain access to needed information, financial help, and other resources. In other words, having people in your life who care about your well-being and who express their concern makes it more likely that you will reach out for help when your health and well-being are in jeopardy.

Be Happy! Your Health and Well-Being Depend On It

While we may not have had a choice when it came to our family lives, it is never too late to improve your self-esteem -- the foundation of your well-being. The next step is to make sure that your intimate relationships make you feel loved and cared for. Lastly, it is also never too late to create a social network that supports and nurtures you.

Tips for a Healthy and Happy Life

1. Get your daily dose of laughter. A good guffaw provides physical and psychological benefits such as muscle relaxation and the release of "feel good" brain chemicals.

2. Take joy in the small everyday things. Happiness is not just around the corner, it is right in front of you.

3. Let go and realize that you aren't in complete control of every single aspect of your life. Have faith in a Higher Power.

4. Address how you feel - especially your anger. Talk it out or write a letter describing how you feel (but don't send it).

5. Eat a well-balanced diet and get regular exercise. Avoid dangerous health habits such as smoking, excessive alcohol intake, and drug abuse.

6. Practice preventive health care. For example, take symptoms such as pain and fatigue that continue for more than a couple of weeks seriously and visit a doctor.

7. Don't hold grudges. Learn to let go of the past and to move on with your life. Free your heart to love to the fullest.

© Edel Jarboe


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