Research confirms the effects of stress affect your health. The impact it has on your health, both physical and mental, can be very harmful. In the world we live in today, everything appears to be so fast paced that we can hardly keep up. Stress can be good in small doses and can help to keep you on top of things particularly for work and study preparations, and in the fight and flight response, it is vital for survival in all living creatures. But when chronic stress gets on top of you it can cause serious risk factors for health, both mental and physical.
How Is Stressed Caused
Stress is created by a combination of factors including high expectations, external demands, a loss of control, unhappiness and our new reality of living in a high tech world where we can be continually “plugged in.” In the absence of dedicated efforts to balance these demands, and create time and space to take care of yourself physically and emotionally, stress may be inevitable.
Research shows the top ten stress factors are:
- The Death of a Loved One
- Separation or Divorce
- Getting Married
- Starting a New Job
- Workplace Stressors
- Financial Problems
- Moving to a New Home
- Chronic Illness or Injury
- Transition to Adulthood
The effects of stress change the physical make up of both the body and brain.
Chronic stress sufferers can become sensitized, this means that they become acutely sensitive to stress and the tiniest stressful situation is able to trigger chemicals reactions in the body and brain causing serious risk factors for health. The brain virtually re-circuits itself in response to this reaction and while we might believe that we are not reacting to being late for an appointment, our brain is reacting as though our very lives were on the line.
Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on.
The Role of the Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is a vast network of nerves reaching out from the spinal cord, directly affecting every organ in the body. It has two branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, which have opposite effects.
The sympathetic ANS helps us deal with stressful situations by initiating a ‘fight or flight’ reaction. After the danger has passed the parasympathetic ANS takes over, decreasing heartbeat and relaxing blood vessels.
In healthy people, the two branches of the ANS maintain a balance — action followed by relaxation. Unfortunately many people’s sympathetic ANS stays on guard, making them unable to relax and let the parasympathetic system take over. If this situation becomes chronic, a whole variety of stress-related symptoms and illnesses can follow.
The mind and body are inextricably linked and the interaction between them can produce physical changes. Some problems such as headaches and muscle tension are often directly caused by the bodily responses that accompany stress. Many other disorders, some say most, are aggravated by stress.
Risk Factors for Health
Research has found that the risk factors for health caused by chronic stress causes as much as 60 to 90% of all illnesses. Physical symptoms include damage to the cardiovascular system, and even affect the immune system. This compromises your body’s ability to fight infection and disease.
The effects of stress on the digestive system cause chaos, and stress is even able to prevent women from conceiving, and stunted growth in children. And yes, children also suffer from the effects of stress!
There is a virtually unending list of medical conditions that are attributed to the effects of stress including but not exclusive to: Chronic unexplained pain, High blood pressure, Ulcer, Heartburn, Migraine, Heart disease, Asthma, PMS, Diabetes, Obesity, Infertility, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Autoimmune Diseases, and Skin problems.
Tips for Managing Stress
Healthy ways to relax, de-stress and recharge:
- go for a walk
- spend time in nature
- call a good friend
- sweat our tension with a workout
- take a long bath
- light a scented candle or use essential oils
- savour a warm cup of tea
- play with a pet
- work in your garden
- get a massage
- curl up with a good book
- listen to music
Chronic Stress and Emotional Well-being
Chronic stress causes emotional damage that is compounded by physical illness. It pounds away at your mental health, leaving you unable to cope with even the smallest of everyday pressures. Stress suffered in the long-term can cause mental health problems like anxiety, eating disorders, depression and substance abuse.
It is not accidental that physical symptoms are experienced when you are in a stressful situation. These are defense mechanisms, your body’s natural response to threat. If these responses are continually stimulated the effects of stress on the human body can make it more susceptible to life threatening health problems.
The stress response or fight or flight response is the way in which the body responds automatically, and changes into high gear to deal with physical threats.
When your body encounters such a threat the Hypothalamus (situated at the base of the brain) sets off the alarm. A combination of nerve and chemical signals tells the adrenal glands to release adrenalin and cortisol. Adrenaline increases heart rate and increases blood pressure; cortisol increases blood sugar and makes the brain more able to use that glucose release.
Cortisol also stimulates chemicals in your body to speed up tissue repair. Cortisol also curbs non-essential function such as the digestive system, growth processes and the reproductive system. These chemicals also affect the centers of the brain that control mood, fear and motivation.
The stress response is self-regulating, and things generally go back to normal once the threat is over.
However, long term stimulation of the stress response and exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones disrupts many of the natural processes of the body. This results in heart and digestive problems, memory impairment, depression, physical illness and a whole host of other health related problems.
The human body is designed to withstand occasional extreme stress, so we can survive quite a lot of pressure, but it is not designed to deal with such stress ongoing. It’s important to remember that most negative symptoms can be corrected if you take action. And there’s a lot of help available. If you are at all worried, do not delay in getting expert advice — your peace of mind is worth the effort. The problem will most likely not go away and the worst thing you can do is ignore it.
Your Stress Inventory – How are you doing right now?
Stress often is accompanied by an array of physical reactions.
Signs of stress can include the following:
- sleep disturbance (insomnia, sleeping fitfully)
- clenched jaw
- grinding teeth
- digestive upsets
- lump in your throat
- difficulty swallowing
- agitated behavior, like twiddling your fingers
- playing with your hair
- increased heart rate
- general restlessness
- sense of muscle tension in your body, or actual muscle twitching
- noncardiac chest pains
- dizziness, lightheartedness
- sweaty palms
- stumbling over words
- high blood pressure
- lack of energy
Cognitive signs of stress include:
- mental slowness
- general negative attitudes or thoughts
- constant worry
- your mind races at times
- difficulty concentrating
- difficulty thinking in a logical
- the sense that life is overwhelming; you can’t problem-solve
Emotional signs of stress include:
- no sense of humor
- jumpiness, over excitability
- feeling overworked
- feeling overwhelmed
- sense of helplessness
Behavioral signs of stress include:
- decreased contact with family and friends
- poor work relations
- sense of loneliness
- decreased sex drive
- avoiding others and others avoid you because you’re cranky
- failing to set aside times for relaxation through activities such as hobbies, music, art or reading
If you checked many of the above reactions to stress, consider the steps you can take to begin to manage and control your stress, before it controls you.
by: Mary Joan Brinson MSW, RSW