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Frontline Psych with Doc Bender: Is Stress Changing Your Life?

Service member looking stressed
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Daniel Boothe

Dr. James Bender is a former Army psychologist who deployed to Iraq as the brigade psychologist for the 1st Cavalry Division 4th Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Hood, Texas. During his deployment he traveled through Southern Iraq, from Basra to Baghdad. He writes a monthly post for the DCoE Blog on psychological health concerns related to deployment and being in the military.

Feeling stressed? It’s OK, stress is normal, and even useful, and we all experience it at some point. But, like too much of anything, too much stress is bad. Chronic stress is an extreme amount of stress that lasts for an extended period of time and can take a serious toll on your physical and psychological health. This is different from the intense stress you feel when your life is in danger, the kind of stress that can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder. Both are examples of unproductive stress.

Stress is defined as a body’s total response to environmental demands or pressures. In other words, you feel stress when you don’t know if you can satisfy the demands put on you by your environment. For example, your boss (part of your environment) wants you to finish a report before you go home and you need to leave by a certain time to pick up your kids from school. You don’t know if you’ll be able to finish the report (the demand from the environment) and pick up your kids. The inability to predict or control your environment and consequently have your goals thwarted are situations that are very likely to cause stress. 

For better or worse, your body has one response to stress: fight or flight. What you may have felt while taking fire in Afghanistan is the same type of response you feel when you’re stuck behind a slow driver on the road. The main difference is the intensity, the degree of your response.

If you’re like most folks, you manage some amount of stress every day. But when you feel stressed constantly and have trouble relaxing, problems begin. Excess stress can lead to poor health and poor performance. You might have chronic stress if you experience the following:

  • Inadequate sleep because of your stress
  • You always find something to worry about, moving from one “emergency” to another
  • Your constant worrying interferes with work or school
  • You develop health problems like headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, backache or you get sick easily with no medical explanation
  • Your stress causes you to be depressed, anxious or angry. All three emotions are closely connected and often feed off each other
  • You’re using drugs or alcohol to manage your stress

So, what should you do? Talk to a health care provider. Chronic stress is treatable with options ranging from medications to therapy to lifestyle changes.  

In many cases, you can help yourself by leaving a stressful situation. Unfortunately, that’s not always an option in military settings, but, controlling and predicting your environment to the extent possible will help reduce stress.

Also, time management, regular exercise, social support and relaxation techniques are all proven methods for lowering stress. For additional ways to get stress out of your system and prevent health problems, try some of these stress management ideas.

Thanks for reading and be sure to write with any questions or comments.

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