NAMI speaker gives keys to coping with stress

Debora Stout, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) from Astoria, speaks to a crowd of about 40 at the Peninsula Church Center on "Emotional Health and Families." Stout's presentation contained a strong emphasis on how families and individuals can recognize stressors and cope with the effects. This event, held on Feb. 15, was sponsored by the Pacific County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

LONG BEACH — Family, friends, work and life in general can bring on stress. It can’t be outrun and its onset usually can’t be avoided. But there are steps one can take to keep it under control. When Debora Stout, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) came from Astoria last Tuesday to speak to an audience of more than 40 people, she gave them tools to manage their lives so that stress would not engulf them or become crippling.

The evening event was sponsored by the Pacific County National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter. Stout had been a speaker at previous NAMI events and is known for presenting information about psychiatric issues in an easy to understand format. At last week’s talk, she again did just that.

One fact that might have surprised many audience members was Stout’s comments that, “Not all stress is bad.” Her handouts stated that some stresses can trigger creativity and healthy change. But then there is the other type of stress — the chronic kind that can cause sleep disturbances, muscle tension, body aches and headaches. It will elevate blood pressure and the resting heart rate and may bring on fatigue, anxiety and a host of other problems. How does a person go about combating its effects? 

Stout said that above all, “The bottom line of managing stress is to take care of yourself.” Of the several points she made about how to accomplish this, one sounded simple, but actually packs a wollap in the war against stress: Have fun.

 

Fun and laughter 

are great stress reducers

“Make sure you are getting some time for yourself. Do something that’s just fun,” Stout said. For example, if it means taking a short walk, do it because you want to and because there are no other motives. 

“It’s not because you’re going to take this walk to talk to Erma, because she’s having a hard time,” Stout explained. This is your walk and yours only. It should have no other purpose than to be enjoyable. “It’s really important to have a few things every week that you are doing because they are fun. You don’t have to do them for 20 hours. Maybe it is just 15 minutes at a time, if that’s all you can manage.”

Stout also instructed her audience to, “Remember to laugh.” Laughter causes positive chemical responses, like a runner’s high from endorphins. “We don’t just get it when we run. We also get it when we laugh. That’s why, when you go to a comedy club or watch a funny show, it feels good and is kind of relaxing.” 

 

Spirituality — find the type 

that works for you

“I’m not talking just about religion,” Stout said, when she listed spirituality as one of the factors that helps with stress reduction. “Religion is the definition of spirituality for a lot of people.” 

But she said there are alternatives if someone is seeking their own form of becoming spiritual. “Many find it in church, but some find it in the woods or on the water.” 

Research has shown that spirituality tends to be one of the factors that help people deal with stress. She said that those who find some way of experiencing spirituality “tend to be more resilient and deal with stress a little bit better.”

 

Develop a balance of work 

and play

Stout feels our country, compared to others, is behind in realizing that work and play need to strike a balance to help workers avoid stress. 

“I keep hearing about six- to seven-hour workdays in Germany and how much paid vacation people get in parts of Europe — and how much leave people get, not just after they have a baby, but also before. We are really behind Europe in terms of culturally having structures in place that help us manage stress. For the most part, employees in our culture are rewarded for being very out of balance with work and play.”

Stout encouraged audience members to “look at what that balance is like for you.”

 

Support systems can help

“Developing and using support systems is incredibly important,” Stout commented. “It’s really one of the most important active things that we can do.” She looked around the audience and told them that being part of groups such as NAMI or any type where people get together, can help in coping with a stressful life.

 

Ditch the cigarettes 

and lock the liquor cabinet 

Smiling, Stout stated that, “No matter what the question, the answer is always ‘Quit smoking, eat right and exercise.’” The audience responded with laughter and a lot of head nodding, signifying they’d heard that before. Stout then added, “There may be some questions to which that’s not the answer, but with questions about stress, that’s a least part of the answer.” So, she said, is the subject of alcohol.

“We live in a culture that’s pretty saturated in alcohol,” she explained. “It’s hard to go anywhere or do anything without someone offering you a drink.” Sitcoms also seem to wrongly feature alcohol as the perfect stress reliever. A person comes home after a bad day and upon walking through the front door, plops into an overstuffed chair and announces, “I need a drink.”

Stout said that’s not the answer and is “probably not the best way to deal with stress. It tends to make stress worse. Physiologically, alcohol is stressful. And that’s actually why people will tell you to stop smoking if you’re stressed, even though quitting smoking is probably of the most stressful things I personally have ever done. But, our bodies interpret any foreign substance that is toxic as stressful. Alcohol and nicotine are toxins. A certain number of people die each year because of alcohol poisoning. It really is a poison, as is nicotine. There is some physiological stress that happens whenever we ingest any kind of poison.”

In Stout’s opinion, using alcohol to drop stress levels, doesn’t work. “I’m not saying that I don’t think anyone should never drink at all, but it is probably a poor idea to drink when you’re stressed, because it’s not going to help. It might help in the moment and you might temporarily feel a little bit calmer,” but she added that soon, it will make matters worse, “because it puts stress on your body and has the potential of causing a lot of other problems that are additional stressors. It makes everything worse, not better.”

 

Get plenty of ZZZZZZZZs

Sufficient sleep is crucial to the body and mind. Stout continued her talk about alcohol, when she got to this segment of her presentation. She strongly stated that while many people think a stiff drink before bedtime will help them melt into a soft mattress and drift off into long hours of deep slumber, that’s not the case. “You might fall asleep a little bit quicker, but it’s going to mess up your sleep. You’re not going to stay asleep. “ She said you will likely wake up two or three hours later and remain awake.

Alcohol is one culprit in preventing sufficient sleep, but another factor might be causing difficulties without a person even knowing it exists. Sleep apnea is a common disorder that causes pauses in breathing, or produces shallow breaths, while you sleep. Stout said that some people can have as many as 180 episodes of apnea in the course of one night. This can release adrenalin and cortisol, among other fight or flight responses. “As far as our bodies are concerned, not breathing is a huge threat.”

She urges people who snore to get a sleep apnea test. “Snoring is not normal. Not everyone who snores has sleep apnea, but snoring really means there is a constriction in the airway.”

Other than snoring, Stout said, “One of the hallmarks of people with sleep apnea is getting up more than twice in the night to go to the bathroom. The reason this is happening is because when you have that crisis of not breathing and your body shoots out all those hormones, your bladder, which goes to sleep and relaxes at night, gets stimulated.” Each time a person gets up for this reason, Stout explained, “your heart and organs are being jolted. It’s very stressful.”

 

Exercise regularly

Several of the benefits of exercise get constant media attention, often as ways to ‘reduce your thighs’ or get that ‘six-pack look to your abs.’ But Stout said one of the biggest pluses is that exercise is “part of metabolizing those stress hormones and getting into a relaxation response. The whole system is designed to have an exercise component.”

 

Take care of your physical health overall

It all blends together — sufficient sleep, exercise, avoiding alcohol and nicotine and of course, eating right. “It’s hard to eat right,” Stout admitted, especially if you’re racing here and there and the only thing that’s open is a fast food restaurant. But, she encourages people to do the best they can to eat healthy foods.

When Stout’s presentation closed, a question and answer session opened up. Audience member Deb Quimby commented, “You know what I like about the word ‘stressed?’ When you reverse it, you have ‘desserts.’” 

Laughter came from the audience — that laughter that is so good because of the stress relief it provides.

 

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