Getting Out From Under Stress: Jerome Kiffer

By Jerome Kiffer
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Stress may be an unavoidable part of life, but too much of it can cause physical and emotional problems. If you're stressed out, read about tips on stress management from psychologist Jerome Kiffer, MA, from The Cleveland Clinic.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Jerry. Is stress really a problem or just a fact of modern life?

Kiffer: The answer is both. It is an increasingly more frequent problem of modern life and it is a problem for a greater majority of us. The problem of stress affects how we feel emotionally, physically, affects our quality of life, and those around us that we love can also feel the affects of our stress.

Member: What are some physical signs of stress?

Kiffer: The most frequent physical sign of stress is muscle tension and muscle tightness that can lead to pain, but all of us experience stress differently. Other common physical symptoms of stress involve stomach upset, cardiovascular reactions, and various other systems in the body.

Member: Can constant headaches be caused by stress?

Kiffer: Absolutely. The most frequent type of chronic headache is muscle contraction headache that is thought to be associated with chronic levels of muscle tension in the facial muscles and neck and shoulders. Even for migraine headaches, which involve blood vessels, a frequent trigger for this type of headache can be a stressful event.

Member: I'm trying to conceive and want to know if stress can affect my fertility.

Kiffer: That is possible. I work in a hospital setting where we do get referrals from the gynecologic department for couples that are having difficulty conceiving. And our approach in these situations is to identify any excessive stress reactions that are present in either partner. And often, by learning how to relax and managing stress, it increases the chances of conceiving.

Member: Could stress affect you sexually?

Kiffer: Yes it can. That is through two different mechanisms. One would be a psychological and emotional mechanism, which can result in either sexual performance difficulties or loss of interest in sex. And the other mechanism is a physical one, which is related to the chronic affects of high adrenaline in the body, which can make or result in poor sexual performance.

Member: Can stress make you susceptible to sickness and injury?

Kiffer: Yes. Again I preface a lot of my answers by stating that this comes from my experience of working in a medical setting and I am not a medical doctor nor can I make a diagnosis. But, stress can have an effect on the immune system. Research has shown that chronic levels of stress can reduce the parts of the immune system that fight infection. The end result is what we think of when we talk about a weak immune system; that is, one is more susceptible to viruses, bacteria, and our resistance is low. Additionally, when we are stressed, we typically are moving around too quickly for our own good and we end up bumping into things or are more susceptible to just minor injuries. This is just from trying to accomplish too much in too short a time.

Member: Can being depressed be caused by stress?

Member: What about moodiness?

Kiffer: First off, moodiness is certainly an emotional indicator of stress. We all know what it feels like to have too much to do, to have time demands placed on us that may seem unfair, and to have our normal sleep-wake patterns altered. In other words, stress can often lead to insomnia and poor sleep. That sets the stage for us being moody and irritable. Depression can be associated with long term, chronic levels of stress. Yet, I would say that depression is more associated with what we talk about as burnout. Burnout is the end result of long-term, unabated stress.

Member: I get angry very easily. A crashing computer, the dog chewing on a shoe, traffic jams all make me crazy. Is this a result of being stressed? I wasn't like this when I was younger.

Kiffer: This is a very typical scenario of being stressed and feeling stressed. It's interesting that as you describe what is going on in your life that it is related to our cultural emphasis on machines, technology; there is just so much to do. And when machines break down and dogs act up and people place a lot of demands on us, all of these external sources of pressure and will often result in lowering our threshold, our tolerance for stress, and we find ourselves then with a stress reaction. Stress reaction can take the form of physical symptoms, behavioral disturbances, and emotional upset.