Effects of Stress Can Be Painful

Monday Magazine | May 19, 2004
In the 1976 song “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” the late Warren Zevon wrote of hard work, “Bombay gin,” medication and exhaustion. “It don’t matter if I get a little tired,” he reasoned. And like the rest of us, he just kept on keeping on.

For many, the race to achieve and accomplish more, and the rush to escape that race, is the norm. But what about that nagging irritability, those prescription drugs, the after-work drinks and the relentless insomnia? According to Dr. E. Pamela Hutchison, a Victoria naturopath who specializes in mental wellness, these symptoms, and their accompanying short-term solutions, are common among people who are stressed out. And these days, she says, there are a lot more of those people in the Garden City than there used to be.

“People are expected to do more work for less money in most jobs,” she says. “There is less of a feeling of being compensated for your work.” That leads to more stress at home, too. Parents are stressed out trying to juggle the demands of work and shared child care, Hutchison says. And among children, depression, obesity and anxiety—all key symptoms of stress—are becoming more common.

Other symptoms of stress include insomnia, chronic tiredness, pre-menstrual syndrome, restlessness, neck or back pain, headaches and muscle tension. Even a tendency to burst into tears can be stress-related. Long-term, stress is thought to contribute to cardiovascular disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal illness and cancer.

Massage therapist Sandra Pol says the neck, shoulders and upper thoracic spine are the most common places for stress to show up in muscles. “When I see people who are really stressed out, the muscles are so tight that they get less circulation,” says Pol, who works at both Cedar Hill Sports Therapy Clinic and Vitality Treatment Centre. “And when muscles get less circulation, they stay tight.” Pol says even though she can easily identify these signs of stress, her clients often have no idea how tight their muscles are. “When you’re stressed, you don’t realize you’re holding your shoulders up to your ears,” she says.

Another common symptom of stress—grinding or clenching the teeth—can cause serious dental damage. “People can lose their teeth, it can be very destructive,” says James Bay dentist Dean Stelmaschuk. “I’ve seen some teeth that have been quite eroded.” Sometimes, he says, people grind or clench their teeth because of the way their “bite” sits. But often, it’s just a habitual thing—some people do it while others don’t. “When people do it, they generally know, because they’ll catch themselves doing it when they’re stressed or angry,” says Stelmaschuk. “But they might do it for five minutes or so before they notice.”

To help patients stop damaging their teeth, Stelmaschuk can make “bite plates” to protect the teeth from themselves, or adjust a patient’s bite by grinding teeth or building crowns. Often, he says, he’ll also refer patients to a doctor or chiropractor. Stress-related damage to teeth, he says, “can be pretty involved.”

Even though the effects of stress can be painful (and in some cases, physically and emotionally devastating), people don’t always see what stress is doing to them. And even if they do recognize the problem, says Hutchison, they don’t always want to talk about what they’re going through.

“One of the things that happens with stress is that people have these feelings that they’re holding at bay,” Hutchison says. “I see it in a lot of government workers lately . . . people don’t want to talk about their stress because they feel others will think if they’re stressed, they’re not doing their job well.” So instead of talking about their feelings, she says, people turn to alcohol, caffeine, tobacco or drugs in order to cope. But the stress doesn’t go away. “It’s human nature to want immediate release,” Hutchison says. “People do these things for short-term gain, but the long term is actually very important in stress management.”

Diagnosing stress can be difficult, partly because people are reluctant to own up to it. At Victoria Naturopathic Clinic, Dr. Albert Rode says it is often much easier for him to identify stress in his clients than it is for them to admit to it. “You can see signs of it in the way they hold themselves, and in their eyes,” he says. “The eyes are a great window into the mind . . . but people get stressed out about being asked about stress sometimes.” Rode says he has had people respond sharply to questions about stress. “They’ll say ‘this isn’t about stress, it’s a physical condition’,” he says.

Hutchison explains that stress affects blood flow to the brain, causing more blood to flow to the back of the brain “where the basic survival functions happen.” With less blood flow to the front of the brain, she says, “people react in a less intellectual way . . . they react and make decisions from a place of fear and anxiety, rather than from a place of contemplation.”

So, what are some long-term strategies for dealing with stress?

To help her clients cope, Pol suggests muscle-lengthening stretches and exercises, and allows people the space to talk about the things that are causing them stress. Then, she says, “I just get in there and massage . . . I find it very empowering to actually get in there and help.”

From a naturopathic perspective, Rode says he prefers to treat patients with botanical (plant-based) medicines, vitamins and minerals and minerals . “That way you deal more directly with the emotions,” he says.

“Stress causes tunnel vision, and when you’re in a tunnel, you can’t see clearly. When you peel off some of the layers, it helps.” Hutchison works at goal-setting with her clients, and also suggests dietary changes where necessary. Other important ways to reduce stress are to stay connected with friends and community, she says, and to set up an exercise program that fits into work and home schedules. Cutting out caffeine, tobacco and alcohol are also important, she says. “The biggest thing I hear from people when they start making the changes is that they feel more grounded,” she says. “That gives them the confidence to keep on going."

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Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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