Living Well: How to De-Stress

While recent global events can take their toll, we define stress, signs and symptoms, offering resources and coping strategies.

Given recent earthquakes, a devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, a prolonged and uncertain recession in the United States, widespread unrest in the Mid-East, recent bombings in Libya, and the murders of three St. Petersburg, Fla. police officers in less than one month, the challenges of balancing mind, body and soul can seem daunting.

Stress is the body’s way of keeping us alert and safe from danger.

“Stress activates us and helps us get things done,” said Heidi Ison, a license clinical social worker at the University of South Florida. However, prolonged exposure to stress and how we react is critical for staying healthy and living well, she said.

According to Ison, common stress reactions include:

  • a racing heartbeat or pulse
  •  shallow breathing
  • sweaty palms and hands

You may also experience confusion and disorientation, being worried and question why something happened. That’s especially true in the wake of so many unpredictable and monumental disasters replayed constantly on video via television and the web. Ison points out that you may be predisposed to a stress reaction depending upon how close you are to a situation.

“Being able to relate to the tsunami because you may have emigrated from there, know someone who has, or because you haveu traveled to that part of the world, can make you susceptible to stress," she said. “Others may relate an incident to other traumas they have experienced, such as a flood, which can trigger a stress response.”  The key to coping, she said, is being aware of triggers.

Stress becomes problematic when symptoms continue for more than two weeks and/or:

  • you start withdrawing from activities, friends and family
  • stop participating in things you enjoy
  • experience stomach aches, grind your teeth, have sleep disturbances or a marked change in appetite

According to a 2006 study at Rockefeller University in New York City, stress can shrink brain cells and prematurely age one’s immune system. A person’s response to stress can even cause neurons in the hippocampus to shrink. The hippocampus plays a pivotal role in memory.  Stress can cause a similar shrinkage in the prefrontal cortex as well. That is the portion of the brain used for focus and decision-making. However, prolonged stress can interfere with both.

According to scientists, there are two main types of stress: 

Acute stress - “fight-or-flight response”, it is the body’s reaction to a threat or challenge. The response can be intense and may be caused by competition, a stndardized test of importance, a minor car accident, or participation in exciting athletic competition.

Chronic stress results from long-term exposure to acute stress. The response is subtle, but effects may be long-term.

When our bodies are under stress, the kidneys may release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases blood pressure, heart and metabolic rates. Cortisol allows the brain to absorb more glucose, often leading to a blood sugar imbalance, may suppress thyroid function, decrease bone density and raise blood pressure. Chronic stress can increase your risk of heart disease, depression, insomnia, and obesity. It can even affect intellectual and physical performance.

Survival of the Stressed

According to a 2006 study by HR.com, stress-related injuries or illness cost businesses in this country, more than $300 billion per year.  That number has doubled in the past decade. A 2004 poll conducted by the American Psychological Association also determined that one in four people admit to taking a “mental health day” because of work-related stress. That can be costly for employers.

Time management techniques, listening to music, writing in a journal, practicing yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong may help reduce stress or teach you to cope, according to experts. The Gulfport Recreation Center, Scout Hall and Gulfport Multipurpose Senior Center offer many affordable fitness courses that may aid in relaxation.

Armed with an interest in emergency response issues, crisis intervention, trauma, recovery and gender and diversity issues has afforded Ison a unique perspective.  She says striking a balance and taking care of the basics are of prime importance in combatting stress. In addition to understanding your risk factors, she advocates:

  • getting adequate rest and good sleep
  • eating healthy, balanced  meals and avoiding junk food
  • drinking plenty of water -  stress can cause dehydration
  • engaging in moderate exercise

“Beyond that,” Ison said, “It’s important to develop hobbies that give us joy, set aside quiet time for reflection, develop a supportive network and engage in meaningful community work.”

She said pets can also provide a source of comfort. There are many pet rescue organizations in Pinellas County and ways to volunteer with animals. You might start as a volunteer dog walker for Pinellas County Animal Services

Although there has been a particularly tough spate of local and national news since last spring’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Ison says watching the news in moderation and only at certain times of day may help reduce repeated exposure.  For some, watching a continual repetition of violent or traumatic imagery can lead to sustained stress reactions. Watching the news just before bed, may even interfere with sleep.

“When traumatic disasters hit, the effects reverberate to those not directly impacted,” she said. “The catastrophic effects on lives and property can seem overwhelming, and one may even wonder if they too are vulnerable.”

She says that can be normal, initially. Taking action through community work and development of trusting relationships can provide great comfort and even, balance. She also encourages the practice of deep breathing and relaxation techniques, engaging in e exercise, and donating time to helping solve a community issue. Anxiety persisting beyond two weeks is an alert, according to Ison.

“Your body is signaling that it’s met its limit and action is needed.”

She cautions that if the urge to self-medicate increases, or you actually partake in alcohol or drugs, tell someone. You can call 211,or log on to www.211tampabay.org for 24/7 support and assistance in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties. If you have suicidal thoughts, you should call immediately.   

Ison also said it is vitally important to “reach out to your support system and let them know you’re feeling anxious”. A support system may include family, friends or spiritual advisors. 

“It’s important to know that even the healthiest and strongest can feel weakened at times,” Ison said.  “Reaching out for help is important.”


  • Gulfport Multipurpose Senior Center: For more information about health, wellness and social activities call 727-893-2237 or 727- 893-1231.
  • Directions for Mental Health : Prevention, early intervention, treatment, adult and children outpatient services, mental health therapies, psychiatric services.
  • Suncoast Hospice Bridges Community Bereavement Services727-586-4432
  • Senior Helpline: program of the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas, Inc. Connects seniors to community resources,  1-800--963-5337,
  • Suncoast Center for Community Mental Health : In-home mental health counseling to homebound elders, provided through the federal Older Americans Act. Suncoast also provides outpatient and case management services, which consist of assessment, treatment planning, medication management, counseling and service coordination for mental health and addiction problems. For more information call 727-327-7656.
  • Victim Assistance Programs  may be available  through local law enforcement departments including the Gulfport, Largo and St. Petersburg Police Departments, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and Pinellas Park Police.
  • Florida Suicide and Crises Hotline: For help seven days a week, 24 hours a day call 727-344-5555.

The good news is  treatment with a licensed psychologist or social worker may offer new insght and coping techniques.  Ison says finding the right ft with a clinician is critical for successful treatement and may involve some time.  You can search our directory for a listing. To achieve the goal of living well, the time invested may be well worth the effort.


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