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Managing stress enables us to better care for others

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On a recent interisland trip, I found myself nodding in agreement as the flight attendant explained the steps for putting on the oxygen mask that drops down in front of you in an emergency.

Passengers are instructed to put on their own oxygen mask before assisting anyone else. The reason is simple: You have to be well enough to help anyone else. It’s a real-life example that I use to remind my patients why it’s important for us to take care of our health in the midst of our busy, stressful lives.

Whether we’re parents dedicated to our children or taking on caregiving duties for aging parents, many of us tend to put the well-being of those we love before our own needs. As much as we want to help others, we have to remember that we won’t be able to take care of our family if we aren’t healthy ourselves.

Take stress. We all experience stress in our daily lives. But too much stress can result in feeling overwhelmed. Some common symptoms of stress include headache, stiff neck, back pain, rapid breathing or an upset stomach. Over time, stress can weaken our immune system, increase our blood pressure or cause us to get sick more often.

Stress is directly linked to raising blood pressure. And when your blood pressure is high, your heart must work harder to move blood through your body. Left untreated, high blood pressure, or hypertension, can lead to serious health problems such as heart disease, heart attack, stroke, blindness or kidney disease.

Since we all have stress in our lives, it’s important to know how to manage it effectively. Sometimes the ways we deal with stress do more harm than good. Smoking, drinking excessively or eating fast foods that tend to be high in salt, for example, are coping mechanisms that might provide us with momentary escape but are not good for our health. And if we’re feeling so stressed that we start skipping exercise, skimping on sleep and spending less quality time with friends and family, we’re squeezing good stress-relief techniques out of our schedule.

Even with our busy lives, there are steps we can take to manage stress:

» Get regular exercise; strive for 30 minutes a day or 150 minutes a week.

» Eat a healthful diet with at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and avoid excessive salt.

» Try to get at least seven hours of sleep a night.

» Set aside quiet time for meditation.

» Count your blessings and make time for laughter during your day.

» Maintain healthy relationships with others; learn to forgive and forget.

» See your health care provider on a regular basis or when you have questions about your health.

Between home, work and all our other responsibilities, it’s a constant challenge to make time for these stress-management techniques. But I often tell my patients and remind myself that it’s important to make the time to manage stress in our lives. After all, if we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of anyone else.


Ron Fujimoto is a doctor of osteopathic medicine and board-certified family physician. He is medical director for HMSA’s Health Plan Hawaii and Care Management and is HMSA’s patient safety officer.

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