Ask the Doctor: William (Kurt) Armstrong, M.D.

Q. What can I do to better manage stress in my life?

A: Do me a favor. Stop what you’re doing and spend two minutes just breathing. If your mind wanders pull it back to your breathing. Go ahead and close your eyes. How do you feel? There are many simple relaxation techniques; this is just one, but it’s effective.

Stress is normal. It helps us, motivates us, makes us learn and adjust. We are hardwired with a robust fight or flight response. Hormones like adrenalin (epinephrine) and cortisol mediate this process and they are very powerful. They have helped us during times of crisis. In excess, these hormones cause weight gain, racing heart, elevated blood sugar and blood pressure, and contribute to heart disease.

The problem today is many of us are feeling this response with or without a crisis. Every work email, phone call from our child’s school, overdue bill, nosy family member, an alert from your phone can trigger these hormones.

How can we cope? There are healthy and unhealthy ways to deal with the stressors of the modern world. What do we do when we are stressed? I hear these phrases all the time. “I need a drink.” “I’m too busy to exercise.” “There’s no time.” “I can’t afford to eat healthy food.” “I need a vacation.” “I’m the only care giver for my dad.” Sometimes I make these statements. In a busy modern life, we have all found a reason not to manage our stress well.

According to the American Psychological Association, more American adults report their stress is increasing year over year, and 83 percent feel that this has a very strong impact on their health.

We all know that “stress kills,” but what about turning that phrase around and start saying “relaxation heals” instead? Not only does poorly managed stress damage our most important relationships and effect our jobs, but it does lasting damage to our overall health and wellness.

Let’s start to heal. If you smoke or drink too much, stop. If you’re sedentary, get up. If you’re stressed let’s do a few things:

  1. Start a regular exercise routine. Start simple, get outside and walk for 10-30 minutes most days of the week.
  2. Schedule time for yourself. Do the things that relax you most. Make sure you spend at least one hour doing this a week. It might be hiking, gardening, or maybe spending time with your best friend or children. My favorite is spending one hour, leaving my phone in the car, and heading to the beach with a beach chair and my family. It literally feels like I went to Hawaii for a week!
  3. Be sure to spend time away from your “screen.” Our phones and computers have become, for many, a constant reminder of our lives’ obligations and responsibilities. We need to be able to compartmentalize our stressors from our time to relax.

None of these things change the stressors in your life, but they can help you take back control.

William (Kurt) Armstrong, M.D., is a family medicine physician who practices in Newport Beach.