The simple answer is yes, it could be. Although stress does not directly cause death, chronic stress has been associated with a range of physical health problems. These include increased risk for heart disease and diabetes, inflammation of the digestive system, and compromised immune system. A 12-year study by Harris et al, results of which were published in February 2017 concluded that perceived stress was a strong risk factor for type 2 diabetes among women.
WHAT IS STRESS?
Stress is a normal response we experience when there are changes or demands in our lives which we feel under pressure from. When we are under threat, our body’s primitive “fight-or-flight” reaction prepares us to fight or escape from perceived harm. Our body releases adrenaline (a hormone) into the bloodstream, thereby increasing heart rate and causing faster breathing. These changes rapidly deliver large quantities of blood rich in oxygen and glucose to the heart and muscles, helping you to save yourself from danger.
A little bit of stress is actually good for us – from an evolutionary point of view, it was designed to protect us. Imagine, for example, as you cross the road you suddenly see a huge truck speeding towards you. You would immediately run to safety, right? That’s because your “fight-or-flight” reaction, that release of adrenaline, has given you the burst of energy and power needed to survive.
Two other hormones, norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and cortisol, are also involved in stress responses. Norepinephrine is responsible for making you become more alert, focused and awake. Cortisol helps to maintain blood pressure and fluid balance and regulates our immunity and digestive systems.
However, when stress is continuous, day after day, for months with no end in sight, it can massively impact physically and psychologically. If we are in a constant state of stress, cortisol continues to be released. This can inhibit the functioning of the immune and digestive system. Stress can come from many different types of situations and circumstances. It is influenced by how we appraise it, and the degree to which we are able to cope with it.
Typical stressors include:
- Pressures at work
- Death of a spouse
- Injury or illness
- Problems in relationships and loneliness
- Being abused
HOW TO TELL IF I’M SUFFERING FROM STRESS – THE BAD NEWS
Stress affects us in different ways, for example:
- Body: headaches, dizziness, sore stomach, sweating, muscle tension, chest pain, tiredness, exhaustion, dry mouth, grinding teeth.
- What we do: eat too much/too little, irritability and shouting at others, avoiding people/places/completing things, not sleeping, smoking or drinking more.
- How we feel: angry, anxious, overwhelmed, dread, guilt, hopeless.
- Thinking: racing thoughts, thinking negatively, anticipating the worst, reduced concentration/focus, forgetting things, worrying constantly.
HOW TO COPE WITH STRESS – THE GOOD NEWS
In our busy lives, it is easy for stress to build up, sometimes without us realizing this is happening. It is also not always possible for us to control or change our environmental pressures. For example, it’s not necessarily straightforward to just get another job or move to a quieter neighborhood away from those noisy neighbors.
But whilst we may not be able to control or prevent stress, there is a range of strategies we can use to help ourselves.
- Mindfulness and Relaxation practices. There is increasing evidence that mindfulness not only reduces stress but also helps to build an inner strength for future coping. This type of practice helps to switch off the stress response in the amygdala (in the brain). Similarly, relaxation practices such as progressive muscle relaxation and controlled breathing enable the body to calm, soothe and focus, thus reducing physical symptoms of stress.
- Manage that unhelpful thinking. Thoughts like “everything is a disaster”, “I’m not getting anywhere with this”, “what if he doesn’t love me anymore?”. How you appraise your situation will influence your coping. Begin by distracting yourself from your thoughts. Try to take your mind off your stress for a while by focusing on something else. Things you could try – counting your breaths, doing some laundry, watching what other people are doing. Another strategy is to challenge these negative thoughts and consider alternative and healthier thoughts. One way to do this is to imagine yourself as a wise friend. Then ask yourself the following questions: “Are you taking responsibility for something that isn’t your fault?”, “Are you worrying about something that may not happen?”. Write your answers down. It might surprise you how helpful your own advice can be.
- Time management. Improving your time management can be very empowering. Having goals, making a list, prioritizing your tasks, taking a break… All these are skills that will enable you to work smarter and regain some control in your life.
- See a Clinical Psychologist. Sometimes it is just too difficult and you might need a helping hand from a professional. Consider making an appointment with a Clinical Psychologist to discuss treatment options – you do not have to suffer alone.
IN CORPORE SANO.
- Exercise: Staying active is one of the best ways to manage stress. When you exercise, there is an increase in dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. Dopamine stimulates you to seek out an enjoyable activity. Serotonin regulates functions like mood, sleep, and appetite, whilst endorphins help to reduce your perception of pain and feel more relaxed. Lower levels of serotonin and dopamine might lead to depression. So, going for a walk, dancing with your friends, and playing football with your children are great ways to release some frustration as well as have fun.
- Diet. Smoking, caffeine, and alcohol may help to alleviate some symptoms of stress in the short-term. But, in the long-term, it only serves to maintain your body in a stressed state. Similarly, comfort foods like pizza, chips, and ice-cream are likely to raise cholesterol levels thus increasing the risk for heart disease. Choosing a balanced diet with whole natural foods helps to stabilize your blood sugar levels thus reducing stress.
- Sleep. Try to get into a routine of preparing for sleep. For example, establish a regular time for bed, avoid eating and drinking caffeine too late in the day, take a bath, and refrain from watching TV and using your mobile in bed.
- Connecting with people. Research has indicated that when we engage in meaningful and soothing social interactions, our body secrets oxytocin. This hormone reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels. So, one of the most useful things we can do is to stay connected with the positive and caring people in our lives.
- Make time for the things you enjoy. When we are under stress we often lose sight of what keeps us happy. Protecting time for ourselves should not be a luxury but rather an essential requirement for staying well.
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