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Why stress is life-threatening and what you can do about it

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SALT LAKE CITY — We all feel the pressure this time of year. The tension of the holidays: parties, lists, and expectations.

"Oh my goodness, am I going to get everything done? Do I have enough money to do this?" said Heidi White, a working mother who lives in Santaquin.

White said she started having frequent migraines.

"I didn't feel great," she said. "I couldn't see. There were black spots."

White also had high blood pressure. "And you think, 'Do I have a brain tumor?' Your mind automatically jumps to the worst," she said.

Her doctor ran tests. The diagnosis: stress. And the consequences are very real.

Dr. Osman Sanyer of the Madsen Health Center said he's seeing more patients with stress-related illnesses. "The manifestation of stress is anxiety," he said. "I would say a third of the patients we see on any given day, some aspect, the reason they're coming to us is linked to anxiety."

Osman said when stress affects your ability to enjoy the moment and disrupts your ability to sleep, that's when it's time to seek treatment. If you don't, it can lead to heart disease, depression, obesity and memory problems.

"At that point, you start looking at your life saying, 'Oh my goodness, what is causing so much stress?'" White said.

White realized for her, it might be social media that was causing it. "Facebook, Instagram, Twitter," she said. White said she checked it frequently. "Four, five, six, seven times a day. When you can get it right to your phone, it's very accessible and easy."

Sanyer believes that's why stress is on the rise. More and more people are sucked in.

"You will be fed that topic over and over again. You basically start living in an echo chamber," he said.

Sanyer said that clicking can cause polarization, disconnection, and fear. "If the feed reinforces those fears, it reinforces that future narrative that we have no idea if it's going to be true or not," he said.

That's why setting limits on social media are key.

"If you sell out of something, that's a good thing, but it's also a bad thing because people want more of it," said Martha Fetzer, the buyer at Jolley's Gift & Floral. She is feeling it. She is required to use social media to promote the store. "Tired feet, backache, shoulder aches, tension headaches, kind of the day where you just want to get in the bathtub and soak."

Doctors say two hours should be the limit for iPhone or iPad usage, especially when it comes to social media. Any more than that can cause anxiety and stress.

Doctors at the Mayo Clinic recommend the four A's: Avoid stress by planning ahead and learning to say, 'no.' Alter your situation for the better by communicating openly. Accept things the way they are and forgive, and adapt through changing your expectations and looking at things from a new viewpoint.

Part of White's solution was backing off social media.

"It became so overwhelming that I just couldn't do it anymore. I really couldn't, and I have felt so much better," she said. Her headaches are now rare, and her blood pressure is improving. But does she miss social media? "Not at all. Not at all," White said.

For Fetzer, there's no changing how busy her job is at Christmas. She's finding ways to cope and looking forward to the finish line.

"Christmas Eve when everybody goes home and you can relax and enjoy your holiday. And hope that everybody's happy," she said.

Doctors say we need real connections to be healthy, not thousands of Facebook friends, but a handful of close social connections.

Heather Simonsen

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