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Sharon K. Farber Ph.D.


What Stress Can Do to You: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

When stress goes unaddressed, it finds a place in your unconscious or your body.

Sometimes stress can be a good thing. The anxiety of having a deadline to meet might get you to actually meet that deadline. Or the anxiety of having to make a difficult decision might get you to think thoughtfully and finally make that decision.

When stress goes unaddressed or unacknowledged, it does not simply go away. It finds a place for itself. If you decide to put it out of your mind during the day, it can keep you up at night. Or it just may find a home for itself in your body in the form of a psychosomatic or mind-body illness. A woman had come to see me about her problem with anxiety. Although I taught her some tools for dealing with it, she did not use them. One evening she was brought to the hospital Emergency Room by her husband. Her heart was beating very fast, she was having trouble catching her breath, and thought she was dying of a heart attack. After being examined, she was told that her heart seemed to be in pretty good shape and that nothing medically wrong could be found. She was told that she seemed to be having a panic attack, which often can feel very much like a heart attack. This had never happened to her before. When she came in and told me about it, I explained that not paying attention to her anxiety probably brought on her panic attack. The anxiety has to go somewhere and when it builds up, can result in an anxiety attack. This experience was enough to get her to start using the behavioral tools and she has not had a panic attack since then.

Stress can come from remembering some very unpleasant things that you do not want to remember. It can cause or contribute to backaches, neck aches, Irritable Bowel syndrome and other digestive syndromes. It can prevent you from recovering from a medical illness or can make a medical illness worse. It can make you break out in skin rashes. It can cause you to eat a lot when you are not physically hungry by causing uncontrolled food cravings. Stress can cause you to obsess endlessly about your weight and might even bring on an eating disorder. It can cause you to drink far more than is good for you, or use drugs, prescribed or otherwise, to calm yourself down. Some people get temporary relief from anxious or depressed feelings by hurting themselves in some way. Stress can get you to go on a shopping or gambling spree, providing yourself with something of a high. Sex can be very calming and you might find yourself initiating it with the wrong people, in a way you might regret. All these addictive kinds of behavior may help you to feel better temporarily but because they are addictive, they can cause much bigger problems for you in the long run.

You do not have to allow stress to get the better of you. Talking about the things you do not want to talk about or remember with someone who can listen in a non-judgmental way can actually help you lower your level of stress. Sometimes it can even do this without the need for psychiatric medications. There is a reason that one of Freud’s patients termed it “the talking cure”. Talking about these things can be pretty powerful and it can literally make a positive change in how your brain is structured and how it functions.

Taking those first steps to get the help you need can be stressful because you are dealing with the unknown. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard people say that they wish they had done this years ago. Don’t put it off. The time to do it is now.


About the Author

Sharon K. Farber, Ph.D., is a board certified clinical social worker, maintaining a private practice in psychotherapy in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.


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