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Understanding the Stress Monster: Expert Advice to Tame the Beast

A man yells angrily while driving his car

“Are you feeling more stress than normal?”

My doctor asked me this question at my last check-up.

Like most men, I’m pretty good at internalizing and suppressing the things that bother me. So… no probs with stress here, right?

But the more I thought about it…

OK, so I have some issues. To get a better handle on stress, I talked to Dario LaRocca, M.D., Behavioral Health Medical Director at Independence Blue Cross, about the effects of stress on health and ways to deal with it.

What is stress, and what makes us stress monsters?

LaRocca: Stress is the challenging experience of everyday life. It’s caused by any change that causes physical, emotional, or psychological discomfort. It’s felt as strain, tension, urgency, or pressure. For most people, the main causes of stress are work, finances, relationships, family, and daily hassles.

So, stress is a byproduct of life?

LaRocca: Yes, but not all stress is bad. Stress challenges a person, and sometimes that’s a good thing. The idea of avoiding anything challenging can be destructive. People who aspire to do nothing wind up with more challenges. If you don’t exercise and challenge yourself mentally, you can become weaker. You want to have a balance and some degree of exposure to anxiety that builds resilience.

When does stress become a health issue, and not just whining?

LaRocca: There are two types of stress, acute and chronic. Acute is the type of everyday stress that most people have and it can be positive or negative. Chronic stress is pervasive and can seem inescapable. There are a number of medical conditions associated with stress. It can be very serious.

Why do you think men tend to internalize stress?

LaRocca: There are societal expectations that persist about gender. In the Anglo-Saxon culture, historically, the expression of emotion is seen as weakness. But that’s evolving. It not healthy to keep stress bottled up.

So… men have to talk about their feelings now? Is Dr. Phil behind this?

LaRocca: Yes, talking about your feelings can help. The key is to do it in a safe, controlled environment. Talk in confidence to people who you trust, like close friends, family, or a professional. It’s not safe to go on Dr. Phil to talk about your problems. That’s sensationalism.

(So much for the strong, silent type.)

Jobs are stressful, but most of us aren’t saving lives, or turning a key in a missile silo. Don’t we exaggerate our individual levels of stress?

LaRocca: Work is definitely one of the leading causes of stress. It’s not necessarily the job, but the person-environment fit that matters. When the challenges and demands of work become excessive, anyone can be overwhelmed by situations that are beyond their ability to cope. Stress has an entirely different meaning based on the individual and their life experiences.

What about coping mechanisms? Is it OK to, you know, self-medicate to manage stress?

LaRocca: Alcohol can reduce anxiety and reduce inhibitions in a social setting that’s supportive. Blowing off some steam at an occasional happy hour is OK. But isolating yourself and doing it on your own is not good. In excess, it can easily go overboard.

During my work commute, I often use colorful language, and sometimes express myself to other travelers with finger gestures. Is it OK to vent like that?

LaRocca: There is debate over whether “letting it out” is good for you. You can blow off steam, but the same triggers are going to pop up again the next time someone cuts you off. Road rage happens because you’re in your car alone and you don’t have social queues. I wouldn’t recommend doing it with the windows down.

What are the signs that stress is getting to me and I may need help?

LaRocca: There are a number of symptoms: depression, hostility, high blood pressure, nail biting, fatigue, sleeplessness, anxiety, and irritability.

 Ah, anxiety and irritability… my old friends. When does it get more serious?

LaRocca: You can experience a number of medical conditions associated with stress, including heart disease, stroke, ulcers, allergies, gum decay, hair loss, and more. In fact, more than 75% of doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.

What are some keys to relaxing, and taking the edge off? Please don’t say yoga.

LaRocca: You don’t have to do yoga. But physical activity can really help. Any activity that can distract you from your stressors can be helpful. Try mixing up your routine, even if it’s driving home a different way.

The best way to minimize the negative effects of stress is to minimize the stress itself — to identify the sources of stress in your life and either eliminate them, or rethink them to reduce the stress they cause.

Everyone loves a list. What are the top three things that you can do to relieve stress?


  1. Exercise – Exercise increases circulation and blood flow to brain. It helps your body recover better.
  2. Activity – Pick any activity or hobby that you enjoy that can get your mind off your worries.
  3. Socialize – We are social animals. Hang out with people you can talk to and confide in. Not just for venting, but something more constructive.

Thanks, doc. I feel more Zen already. At least until I have to drive home.

Is the stress monster getting to you?

If you’re feeling like stress is getting to you and you could use professional help, check your health insurance benefits. Behavioral health treatment is considered preventive care and is covered 100%.

Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for the advice provided by your own physician or other medical professional. You should not use the information contained herein for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication. If you have, or suspect that you have, a medical problem, promptly contact your health care provider.


Shawn Mahoney

I’m a communications schmo who loves to write, create things that wow, and make people laugh… though I'm genetically wired to be cranky. I’m getting to that age where I can’t eat like I used to or be a lump on the couch without suffering the consequences, so I’m trying to make more health-conscious decisions.