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Recognizing Stress: First Step to Wellness

Two years ago, the United States suffered through terrorist attacks that injured or killed several thousand people. Barely recovered, fear once again griped the nation as traces of anthrax begin showing up in the mail. Talk of an impending war with Iraq became reality last month. And in between the war planning and actual military action, a sniper kept the metropolitan area in fear for nearly a month. In addition, the nation's terrorist alert system has yo-yo'd between elevated and high, causing a run on plastic and duct tape.

"We are seeing people who are very stressed, but many not meet the threshold for post-traumatic stress disorder," said Donna Foster, program director for the Community Resilience Project in Fairfax County. "Stress is cumulative. People may have been OK with 9/11, then we had anthrax, President Bush talking about war, the sniper, our first code orange alert before the war."

A LITTLE STRESS in life is good, said Foster, because it acts as a motivator. However, too much stress can affect someone's mental and physical well being. And no age group is immune.

The signs of too much stress can range from loss of sleep or appetite to behavioral changes to physical illness, since stress can affect the immune system. In a lot of cases, extreme stress is the result of a trauma experienced in the past that was never addressed, but only recently surfaced.

Often people, especially children, who have been traumatized, are reluctant to talk about it, which makes the trauma more stronger when it does surface, said Annmarie Bezold, a licensed clinical social worker with the county's Office of Mental Health.

"Children can be traumatized by a lot of things, seeing an accident, being in foster care, sexual abuse," Bezold said. "With trauma, you have triggers. When a person sees something, hears something it brings them back to the day of the trauma. It can stay with them for life, if they don't get help."

FOSTER said it is easy for a parent to overlook a child's stress, thinking he or she may be too young to understand what is going on around them. And in general, adults may not want to talk about what is bothering them.

So health-care workers look for signs, such as nightmares, loss of interest, intrusive thoughts, and a general feeling of "not being yourself," said Foster. If symptoms of stress continue for three to six months at a time, she said it is time to seek help.

Community Reliance Project recommends three ways to relieve stress when things begin to feel overwhelming: "deep breathing," which involves taking deep breathes to the count of five; the "bubble technique," with eye closed, imagine floating underwater with air to breathe and no tension, putting your thoughts inside air bubbles and watching them float way; and the "sandbag technique," with eyes closed imagine standing in a hot-air balloon still on the ground, inside the basket are bags of sand representing worries, then toss the bags to the ground causing the balloon to rise.