Ask the Doctors: Explore tools to manage stress

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Q: I just started my first post-college job, which I love. Nevertheless, I've been feeling really stressed and anxious. My boyfriend says stress can affect your health. What can I do?

A: First, congratulations on this major milestone in your life. As for finding it stressful, please know that you're not alone. Starting a new job is often overwhelming, and with good reason. Virtually everything — the physical environment, the people, the social culture and the work itself — is unfamiliar.

Your boyfriend is correct that, over time, stress can result in adverse health effects. Acute stress, which we experience in response to a single event or situation, can make your heart race or send your blood pressure soaring. Some people experience headaches, stomach pain, sweating, nausea and bowel problems. Chronic stress, which is long-term exposure to the cascade of hormonal changes that set off the stress response, can lead to depression, sleep disorders, cardiovascular problems, weight gain, systemic inflammation, a weakened immune system and an increased risk of a range of diseases.

You can learn to manage the stress of this transition. First, recognize that sources of stress can be mental, emotional or physical. By taking a detailed mental inventory of your workdays, you can identify the specific situations that result in distress. On the physical side of things, which is your working conditions, take the necessary steps to be safe and comfortable. Depending on your occupation, this applies to lighting, temperature, ventilation, the ergonomics of the workstation or familiarity with safety procedures. When it comes to mental and emotional stressors, which pretty much everyone has on the job, focus on coping techniques. Deep-breathing exercises and mindfulness techniques have been shown to reduce stress significantly. You can learn about these techniques by reading books or taking a class. If that doesn't help, seeing a therapist can help.

The next step is to pay attention. Identify the specific triggers that set off your stress response. Maybe it's a tight deadline, a public presentation, someone's management style or even interacting with a challenging co-worker. Once you know your danger zones, you can prepare with your preferred coping technique. Afterward, use the technique again to get centered. As with everything, the key here is practice and consistency.

In small amounts, stress is no big deal. But chronic stress can take a steep physical and emotional toll. The sooner you learn to identify and manage it, the better off you'll be.

Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.

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