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Your mind is racing. Your heart is pounding. Your muscles are tensing. Welcome to the world of stress.

Continuous stress can cause or worsen heart disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma, chronic pain, headaches, heartburn, liver problems and a host of other ills. It can also affect jobs and relationships.

If you’re stressed, you’re not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some 28 percent of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder, and the average age of onset is surprisingly young — 11 years.

“Change is the main cause of stress, and we live in a time of rapid, unprecedented change. Human brains and bodies are not acclimatized to that pace, and that is a stressor,” said Dr. Roberto Jimenez, chief medical officer of Bexar County’s Center for Health Care Services and a former board chairman of University Health System. The practicing psychiatrist says the majority of people seeking help from the center have anxiety disorders and depression.

“Loneliness pervades our society, from youngsters spending solitary time with their devices to elderly shut-ins. The suicide rate keeps climbing, especially for adolescent girls – that was unheard of in the past,” he said. “Military veterans with (post-traumatic stress disorder) or disabilities, their families — we have whole generations of anxiety. We’ve also seen a frightening rise of alcohol and drug consumption and of chemical dependency.”

Many folks are so accustomed to stress they’re not even aware of the problem, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Don McGeary, an associate professor at UT Health (formerly the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio), and collaborator with University Hospital.

“We walk around with so much tension. Patients often say, ‘Oh, I’m not stressed out,’ although they’re experiencing anxiety, lack of sleep or poor immune function,” said McGeary, who researches chronic pain and military trauma.

“Stress can build up until you get used to it,” he said.

Deep breathing, meditation, muscle relaxation and guided imagery are tried-and-true coping methods, McGeary said. Mindfulness – focusing on what’s going on around you in a positive way — can be helpful. Regular exercise also reduces stress.

FOR MORE HELP                                                                                          

  • Online information and free publications on stress and depression are available from the National Institute of Mental Health at nimh.nih.gov/health
  • The Center for Health Care Services at chcsbc.org or 261-1250; also, a 24-hour crisis and substance-abuse line at 800-316-9241
  • University Health System: 358-4000

While massage and reflexology have been used to relieve stress for millennia, new relaxation therapies have emerged in the past few years. The recently opened FLOAT spa at 4535 Fredericksburg Road uses salt-water tanks and pods to produce soothing, zero-gravity sensory deprivation.

A number of anti-anxiety medications are available, too, but while prescription drugs can help relieve severe stress, both Jimenez and McGeary note they only diminish the symptoms, and not the sources. In the long term, medicine may actually worsen stress and create dependency.

“We’re all going to get stressed out or depressed. It’s part of being human, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to fall on our butts. We need to learn to recognize it, identify our triggers and manage it,” Jimenez said. “Now, we have new techniques, such as cognitive-behavioral modification, that help us change the way we see things. In 10-12 sessions with a therapist you can start to do this. Individual support groups are great.”

According to Jimenez, assisting organizations with free services can be found at First Baptist Church, Trinity Baptist Church, St. Matthew Catholic Church, the Barshop Jewish Community Center on the Campus of the San Antonio Jewish Community and elsewhere.

“You can change. Time, effort and willingness to change are the big ifs,” he added.

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