May is Mental Health Awareness Month: Ways to Unpack Stress

Because patients feel comfortable confiding in their primary care doctor, that physician is often the first person to hear about stressors, says Rebecca McIlroy, DO.

“Probably the most common with my patients is caregiver burnout, the burden of caring for elderly parents — the emotional and physical burden,” she said. But Dr. McIlroy said patients also talk about relationship issues, financial problems, a spouse’s medical issues, and, of course, job-related stress.

While some patients are able to identify how stress impacts their lives, Dr. McIlroy looks at physical symptoms — headache, body aches, back ache, and abdominal discomforts — that are frequently associated with stress.

“Osteopathic training looks at the person as a whole, but often I say, ‘What’s going on in your life?’ Some are very self-aware, and will say, ‘I think it’s the stress,’” she said.

Nevertheless, Dr. McIlroy will then prescribe tests to “methodically go through any possible medical diagnoses, before I conclude it’s stress induced,” she explained.

“I use the metaphor of a backpack, and people putting bricks — one at a time — in the backpack. We have to eliminate some of the bricks if they can’t take the backpack off,” Dr. McIlroy said. “I don’t want acute stress to become chronic stress. We might have to use medication or therapy if they can’t make changes themselves.”

She offers some suggestions:

Find other people to help

What support system is available and who’s involved? This might require more communication, and even some mediation, among family members.

Find personal time for enjoyable activities

“It’s getting back to the basics: Do what you like. Smile every day, and make time for yourself,” advises Dr. McIroy.

Plan ahead and prioritize

Dr. McIlroy urges patients to avoid stress eating, try to eat a healthy diet and get better sleep. Dr. McIlroy also follows up with patients within a couple of weeks to see if people have made changes. “Frequent office visits are very helpful in the healing process,” she said. “I ask them to make one small change for each visit. They have to strive.”

Story provided by says Dr. Rebecca McIlroy, Bayhealth

Unpacking Stress and the Pain that Comes With It | Bayhealth