Stress and Your Health
Life’s everyday worries can add up to a point that seems unmanageable. Deadlines at work, a constantly crying child, problems in a marriage, exams in school… they all contribute to making you feel stressed out, which in turn can have a major effect on your physical and mental health. According to therapist Hooman Keshavarzi, chronic stress can knock seven years off your life — the same amount of time equated with smoking.
Reactions to this pressure can have a physical manifestation. Farah Hussain Baig, a psychotherapist at InnerVoice Psychotherapy & Consultation in Chicago, Illinois, explains this could be as simple as headaches or digestion problems. “You see that a lot in children,” she says. “They don’t necessarily have the vocabulary to say they’re feeling anxious, so you may see a lot of throwing up. Or, if they’re being bullied in school, you might see a lot of stomach issues.”
Adults and children may also have difficulty sleeping, develop a skin rash, or have slowed-down reaction times. Of course, with any physical symptoms, Baig warns a medical issue has to be ruled out first. If it’s stress-related, those causes can then be dealt with. Other mental symptoms may also emerge, such as a flood of thoughts that are hard to compartmentalize. This can lead to distraction and not being able to focus on tasks that actually need to get done.
It’s also important to realize, she continues, that when people talk about stress, they’re largely referring to anxiety. In a state of anxiety, the body reacts with a fight-or-flight response, which is a reaction to some kind of fear. That fear can be real or perceived, and sometimes that alarm can be helpful. It can make you more alert for a speech you have to make, for example. But, when it’s prolonged, issues arise.
Keshavarzi, director of the Khalil Center, a mental/spiritual wellness center based in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, points out stress essentially breaks down into a discrepancy between available resources and perceived demands. “Fear and stress are designed in the short term to alleviate and to give a person more resources,” he continues. In fight-or-flight mode, the body pumps more adrenaline for more energy and alertness. But, this energy is pulled from other areas, such as the immune system.
“In a very primitive sense, you would run away from something you’re afraid of or attack or fight your enemy. The problem is now in our society where stress becomes chronic or long-term. We don’t have a way to get rid of that stressor, but the body still responds in that way,” Keshavarzi adds. That leads to the immune system shutting down for a long time and the body becoming weaker and prone to illness.
The main piece of advice Baig gives her clients is about managing expectations, prioritizing, and recognizing limitations. “There’s always going to be more emails to check, more tasks to accomplish,” she points out. “I think asking for help can be difficult, especially if you’re an independent person. The key is recognizing there are going to be some times you are going to have to ask for it.” Talking to a friend can also help alleviate concerns. Baig adds that a very simple tool can be writing tasks down. That may help you realize that there really isn’t as much to get done as it initially seemed.
Keshavarzi recommends “self-talk” to flesh out what demands there actually are in your life and what resources you have available to address them. Keshavarzi explains stressed people also tend to “catastrophize” because an initial worry can snowball into making demands seem bigger than they are.
Along those lines, Baig recommends taking a moment to step back and slow down. This could include forcing yourself to schedule a night off or using yoga and meditation to relax. Physical exercise also releases endorphins, raises self esteem, and burns off the excess energy that anxiety brings on. Both meditation and exercise trick your body into thinking the stressor is gone, and your body’s fight-or-flight mode — and the associated adrenaline — starts to dissipate.
“Think about a plastic bag. When you twist it and let it go, it bounces back pretty (quickly). But, if it’s twisted up for a really long time, it’s going to be a lot harder to straighten out. If we’re constantly wound up, it’s going to be really hard to straighten out and relax,” Baig says. “We’re always going to be a little crumpled.”
Many people also turn to food when they are stressed out, but things like fat-laden snacks and caffeine may actually lead to more anxiety. Those who are in the midst of trying to juggle several responsibilities at once may turn to something that will give them a sudden boost of energy, such as sugar, but it will ultimately leave them more tired after a short time.
Jennifer McDaniel, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, explains that since adrenaline is already raised, an extra jolt of coffee will just exacerbate the situation. Tea, on the other hand, may have a calming effect while also soothing the upset stomach that Baig referred to.
McDaniel recommends eating foods that have a combination of slow-digesting carbohydrates and protein for a prolonged energy source. Some snack possibilities include yogurt, fruit, or high-fiber cereal. “A nutrient-rich diet helps manage symptoms of stress better,” she adds.
Taking a step back can also give perspective and help you frame your problems in a bigger picture, according to Keshavarzi. “We tend to equate a particular demand with needs, and so we need to be able to distinguish between need and luxury and wants,” he explains. For example, wanting a nicer car may not be an issue, but thinking that luxury is a necessity will contribute to added pressure.
At the Khalil Center, Keshavarzi and his fellow therapists also focus on using faith to heal. “When demands are realistic and when resources are limited, that’s where faith becomes a powerful healer,” he adds. “Trusting in [God], saying I don’t have enough resources, this is all I can do.”
Sheikh Mohammed Amin Kholwadia, director of Darul Qasim, an Islamic learning institute based in Glendale Heights, Illinois, believes management often begins before actual stress is realized. “In the morning or the evening, when you have time for yourself and you’re not focusing or concentrating on the work at hand, then you develop a certain durability level, a level of emotional stamina, a resilience and resistance to these types of pressures,” he says. The everyday acts of a Muslim — prayer, reading Quran, helping others, giving charity — also help regulate anxiety, he adds.
Kholwadia says the macro idea to keep in mind is that God tells us to be ready for struggle and to also strive for things in life. With that comes the micro of hurdles, handicaps, and detours. If, for example, you’re faced with a delayed or canceled flight, you have to deal with the problem. “Be patient about it. You may feel that you’ve been wronged, that’s fine, but there’s nothing you can do about it except bear with whatever’s happening at the moment,” he adds. “A positive approach to a problem usually helps you manage the stress better.”
Kholwadia cites Surat al-Baqarah (The Cow) as an example given in Islam of how to handle problems: “And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, Who, when disaster strikes them, say, ‘Indeed we belong to God, and indeed to Him we will return.’ Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided” (2:155-157).
Kholwadia also runs Ustaad, a company that deals with stress management. Depending on the situation, he may prescribe meditations that are based on the prayers and recommendations of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him [PBUH]). Taking five to ten minutes for dhikr, or remembrance of God, can make those who are anxious feel more in control of their situation. Keshavarzi adds that this meditation can come in the form of deep breathing combined with imagining God’s light enveloping you.
When stress gets to a point that it becomes unmanageable, however, it may be time to turn to a professional. The larger factors in life — a death, loss of a job, health issues — can become insurmountable unless you have the tools a licensed counselor can provide.
Nadia Malik holds a degree in journalism and is a former reporter for a Chicago-area newspaper. She has written for websites and publications and has also worked for several non-profit organizations