Why patients and providers need to take stress seriously

Deb Beaulieu

Deb Beaulieu

We already know that when it comes to influencing patients' behavior--an increasingly critical skill in a post-health-reform world--physicians have more leverage if they practice what they preach. For instance, doctors who eat well and exercise are more likely to advise patients on specific ways to get healthier, rather than simply informing them their BMI is too high.

Unfortunately, doctors addressing patients' lifestyle issues--often root contributors to chronic disease--still seem to be the exception more than the rule. As recent stories from FiercePracticeManagment suggest, stress management is an area in which doctors set an even scarier example, which leads me to hypothesize that they rarely counsel patients on how to de-stress because they don't know how to do so themselves.

The study we covered this week about the way we react to even incidental daily stress came as a shock to me personally. To use the analogy from the article about the study in the Pittsburg-Post Gazette, I have the epitome of a "Velcro" personality in the way I let stresses and worries stick to me. (My husband, by the way, is a "Teflon;" and I'm often outraged when he doesn't get more worked up about things I would consider urgent, which include almost everything.)

Initially, identifying with that article so closely was just embarrassing. Although weekly, monthly, sometimes daily deadlines should be old hat to me by now (and, a dozen years running, I've yet to miss one), I'm never fully relaxed until all of my assignments are complete and submitted (which, as long as I continue to have clients to serve, is never). The same goes for all of us. The day we find ourselves with a cleared to-do list that doesn't magically regenerate is likely the first in which we're no longer alive. And for the countless people who continue letting stressors cling to us like parasites all day, every day, that day may come sooner than we realize.

One of the more sobering conclusions of the researchers from Penn State University was that high reactivity to daily stress was "associated with an increased risk" that a participant would report a chronic physical health condition 10 years later. It's not just patients suffering from major life challenges or already diagnosed with depression or anxiety that are at risk. It's not just physicians contemplating suicide that we need to be frightened for. We all need to make it a priority to lead more peaceful lives, to learn to quiet that inner turmoil that sabotages our happiness and health.

Furthermore, to address chronic disease and meet aggressive goals for cost-containment in healthcare, the medical community needs to start taking stress management and work-life balance seriously, for practitioners as well as patients.

Though I've balked at the suggestion in the past, I'm going pledge to all 20,000+ of you that I will learn to meditate and be more conscious of managing stress. Running and punching things is great for taking the edge off, but it's time to recognize that my body won't cooperate with a high volume of that forever. And like a lot of you, there are times I go 12 or more hours without being able to physically leave the people (in my case, offspring) under my care. If you haven't already adopted similar tools, I encourage you to do so.

Finally, I'm going to end this week's column with an even more unusual twist: A prescription from me to you. Eat lots of turkey and sweet potatoes. Watch football, during which I recommend you fall into a long, deep sleep so that you don't care who wins. Appreciate having people you care about nearby, or surely being in their thoughts if they're not. On behalf of everyone at Fierce, I wish you and your families a warm, relaxing and happy Thanksgiving. - Deb (@PracticeMgt)

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