Stress is an unavoidable and inevitable fact of life. The fast pace of modern life keeps our schedules and our minds fully occupied at all times. From juggling commitments at work, to managing personal commitments, stress can affect anyone regardless of age or background. It is common and normal to experience stress and is part of our bodies natural survival instincts. However when stress becomes unmanageable, it can have a detrimental effect on your body and mind. In this blog I’d like us to explore how our body reacts when we are stressed and how to recognise and reduce harmful stress levels.
Unravelling the stress response
Every living organism has a stress response hard wired into its genetic makeup. Stress in the biological sense of the word refers to our bodies reaction when experiencing a stressor such as an environmental condition. Our bodies release two hormones when we are stressed: cortisol and adrenaline. When you experience a stressful scenario, a set of glands in your body referred to as the sympathetic nervous system triggers your stress response. This response has been formed over years of evolution and is often referred to as your fight or flight response.
Stress can serve some beneficial purposes. When your sympathetic nervous system kicks in it has a range of physiological effects, designed to protect you in your time of stress. These effects include constriction of the pupils for more clarity of vision, slowing down your digestive system, and an increased sense of alertness. This subconscious response is your body’s way of protecting you when you need it the most.
Short bursts of stress are part of everyday life and to be expected. We refer to short term periods of stress as acute stress. Stress becomes problematic however when you find yourself regularly experiencing high stress levels with little reprieve. Continual, unrelenting stress is commonly referred to as chronic stress which can have a lasting negative impact on your physical and mental wellbeing. Chronic stress can be caused by environmental factors such as a negative relationship, a toxic workplace environment or regular money or health problems.
Prolonged chronic stress can manifest in a wide range of symptoms and can lead to long term mental and physical health complications. The symptoms of chronic depression can include: insomnia, low appetite, fatigue, low self esteem, headaches and irritability. These symptoms can also increase stress creating a downward spiral of negative emotions and negative physical reactions for your body.
The physical symptoms of stress
Numerous studies have found the long term physical effects of chronic stress can be detrimental. Chronic stress has been found to increase blood pressure and heart rate, which over time can lead to heart problems and increase your risk of a serious medical emergency such as a heart attack. Chronic stress has also been found to decrease the efficiency of your immune system, leaving you more susceptible to disease and illness, which in turn can lower your mood and increase stress.
The imbalance of hormones caused by increased stress can have an impact on the male and female reproductive system. Those experiencing high levels of stress may experience decreased sexual desire. Males with high stress levels are more likely to suffer from conditions such as erectile dysfunction and decreased sperm production. Women may experience disruption in their menstrual cycle and stress may additionally amplify and accelerate the symptoms of the menopause.
Learning to recognise when you are stressed is essential to stress management and decreasing the health risks that come alongside stress. Learn to recognise what your personal symptoms of stress are. You may experience trouble sleeping, increased fatigue or irritable and erratic mood changes. Keeping a journal or diary of your mood and potential physical symptoms of stress, can help you keep track of your mood and more easily identify when you are experiencing high or prolonged levels of stress.
Identifying the cause of your stress can be the first step to managing your stress levels. However it is not uncommon for people to be stressed by a number of subconscious factors making it hard to pinpoint one root cause. I would once again recommend keeping a journal of your thoughts and symptoms, alongside any incidences that make you feel stressed. This journaling process makes it easier to identify the cause of your stress, and take proactive steps to deal with stress.
There are a range of techniques you can use to manage your stress levels. Managing stress can be a daunting task, and there is no easy solution to doing so. However through developing healthy habits and self care, you can take small practical steps to ensure that you get stressed less often and experience less severe symptoms.
Firstly identify the cause or causes of your stress. Do what you can do to solve the causes of your stress, but also be willing to accept that some things are out of your control or ability to act on. The second important step is to avoid negative stress management methods: such as alcohol consumption, nicotine consumption, or excessive eating or sleeping.
The NHS recommends breathing exercises and an accessible method of dealing with stress. By breathing in a rhythmic and controlled fashion you can reduce the levels of hormones caused by stress. Breathing exercises are accessible, easy, and can only take a few minutes making it a great candidate for stress management for those who struggle to make time for self care.
Physical exercise can also be a great tool for reducing stress. Exercise can release endorphins in your brain, which can lift your mood and stimulate positive thoughts and stress relief. You don’t have to run a marathon! Even stretching your legs for a few minutes, dancing to some music or a simple stretch routine, can help calm your mind and reduce stress levels. Whilst engaging in physical activity, take some time to experience feelings and sensations in your body. This mindful approach to exercise can increase your awareness of self, which can help you to identify causes of stress and feel more in control to act on them.
Don't go it alone!
One of the most important coping mechanisms in stress management is not to experience your stress alone. Sharing how you feel with friends or family can help you rationalise your own emotions and provide a sense of relief. As I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, we all experience stress, so sharing your experience with someone else can help validate your feelings and provide self assurance that you are not alone.
If you are experiencing long term stress with little or no let up, seek medical advice. You can only manage so much stress, and if you feel powerless to control your stress levels seeking professional advice is the most sensible thing to do. There is no shame in feeling stressed, and when it comes to mental health, a problem shared really is a problem halved.
Stress is an unavoidable fact of life. In small doses, it helps us deal with imminent problems or dangers. However long term stress can have a detrimental impact on your mental and physical wellbeing. Don’t let stress take control. Try and identify your cause of stress and develop healthy coping mechanisms to reduce the negative impact of the symptoms of stress. And don’t go it alone! As someone who has experienced chronic stress and depression; talking and communicating with others about how you feel can be the most effective tool in providing you with a healthy support network to manage your stress.