Stressed? It's doing you more harm than you think
Stress is a normal, inevitable part of life - without stress, you wouldn’t get anything done!
But too much stress can take its toll on your mental and physical health. So it’s important to effectively manage your stress levels if things start to feel overwhelming.
As part of Stress Awareness Month, we’ve written this guide to help you understand the damage of stress and included some helpful tips to constructively control your stress levels so you can live a happier, healthier, and more relaxed life.
What causes stress and why is it damaging?
Stress can be caused by various things, such as a divorce, bereavement, work-related problems and money struggles.
A little bit of stress can give you the push to get tasks done. But too much stress can leave you in a constant state of fight or flight and you may be unable to cope.
When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to turn to unhealthy eating habits, alcohol, smoking and even drug misuse. If this continues long term, it can affect your physical and mental health.
Keep reading to find out the harmful effects of stress on the body. But it’s important that you don’t stress out about the potential effects, either!
We’re just here to make you aware of what can possibly happen when your body and mind experience too much stress, so you can change your coping methods to manage stress effectively.
The effects of stress
When you’re stressed, odds are you won’t be feeling yourself. You might snap at your coworkers, become bogged down with fatigue, and wince at your pounding headache or tight, aching muscles.
These are the short-term symptoms of stress. If your stress levels become severe, you’re at risk of developing serious complications.
A weakened immune system
When you’re stressed, your body produces hormones such as adrenaline (which increases your heart rate and elevates your blood pressure) and cortisol (the primary stress hormone which increases the sugars–also known as glucose–in the bloodstream).
These collections of hormones are part of the fight or flight response to danger. In our modern lives, that danger might be a never-ending pile of work with a dangerously close deadline.
Some researchers have found that this sudden rush of hormones can threaten the gut’s defences and put you at risk of developing diseases or illnesses like the common cold or the flu.
The gut depends on a barrier of cells, known as epithelial cells, to protect it against germs and bacteria. These epithelial cells depend on the immune cells to emit signals in order for them to do their job.
One study involving mice found that stress hormones block the signals from the immune cells so the epithelial cells are unable to perform, therefore leaving the barrier open and allowing potentially harmful bacteria in.
High blood pressure
When you find yourself in a stressful situation, it’s normal for your blood pressure to spike temporarily.
Thankfully, there’s little evidence to support that high stress levels equate to high blood pressure in the long-term.
However, when you’re stressed, it can lead to unhealthy habits that may develop into long-term high blood pressure. This includes: smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and a diet consisting of fatty, sugary foods.
We can’t stress enough the importance of avoiding these unhealthy habits when your stress levels aren't under control. There are much healthier and more effective ways to cope!
Having diabetes can cause many people stress with the constant monitoring of your blood sugar levels to ensure they stay in a normal, healthy range.
But did you know that high levels of stress can put you at risk for actually developing diabetes?
We’ve talked about the fight or flight response earlier in this guide, and it’s applicable here, too. This rush of stress hormones make it more difficult for insulin to work as it should; this is known as insulin resistance.
As energy is unable to get into your cells, your blood sugar levels will rise, and if they remain high, it can put you at a higher risk of developing diabetes or complications if you’re already diagnosed.
From heartburn and indigestion to diarrhoea and constipation, stress can wreak havoc with your digestive system, and here’s why.
When stress activates your fight or flight response, it impacts your nervous system, causing many changes in your body. In fact, there's a known link between your gut and your brain, hence why many people find they experience tummy troubles like acid reflux or diarrhoea when they're stressed.
If your stress levels cause a decrease in the oxygen and blood flow to the stomach, it may worsen conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD/GERD).
Stress doesn’t just affect your sex drive - it can cause erectile dysfunction (ED), too.
Erectile dysfunction is a common and equally embarrassing problem that many men face. It can be the result of both physical and mental health conditions, including stress.
Strong emotions like stress, nervousness and anxiety can interfere with the messages your brain sends to the penis to increase blood flow and ultimately, achieve an erection.
This can contribute to a vicious cycle of ED. Even if the primary source of your stress has been resolved, because you’ve had ED troubles in the past, you may become stressed before or during sex that your ED will return.
Don’t worry - if your ED is stress-related, it can be solved if the proper measures are enforced to get your stress levels under control.
Changes to the female reproductive system
When we refer to the female reproductive system, we don’t simply mean how a woman conceives. It refers to hormone production, fertility, periods and even sex-drive.
This system is very delicate and can be affected by many different factors, including the menopause, puberty, eating habits, smoking, hormonal conditions like endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and of course, stress.
Stress can impact the menstrual cycle, leading to irregular, heavier and more painful periods, in addition to worsening the symptoms of the menopause.
There are some studies that suggest stress can influence fertility, too, by disturbing the signals between the brain and ovaries, causing late or absent ovulation and irregular or missed periods.
Ways to combat stress
Don’t let stress get the better of you. Let’s learn some healthy and effective coping methods to save the day when things become a little bit too much.
It’s important to seek professional help from your GP if your stress levels are affecting your daily life.
When you’re feeling stressed, get outside and move your body. Low-energy? Try going to a yoga class or whip out your mat (a bath mat will do) and switch on a yoga class on your phone or TV.
Exercise (or simply deep breathing exercises and stretching) can do wonders for your body and mind.Studies show that physical activity can help to reduce stress levels, in addition to providing a welcome distraction from your busy mind.
When you’re stressed, it’s tempting to neglect looking after yourself by favouring the very object of your distress. Why go for a calming walk surrounded by nature when you can crack on with your approaching deadline at your desk?
Well, it’s time to ignore those thoughts and listen to your needs by practising some well-deserved self-care.
Taking some time for yourself is important, whether it’s reading a book or taking a bath, it’s entirely up to you how you choose to relax.
By lowering your stress levels you can benefit from an improved quality of life, while a lack of self-care can cause burnout.
Spend more time with loved ones
Spending time with your family, friends, partner (or even your pets!) may be able to help you get through a stressful time.
The people you’re closest to know you best - they want to support you and make sure you’re doing okay. These people may even be able to relate to what you’re going through and offer advice.
Feeling stressed can be a lonely time, and you might feel like you have the world upon your shoulders, but having a great social support system is essential for your overall mental health.
Sometimes when your mind is chaotic, it can be helpful to write down and organise your thoughts.
This can reduce your stress, improve your sleep, and provide you with a more positive outlook during a stressful time.
Learn to say no
You might take on extra work to impress your boss, or maybe you don’t want to miss a social gathering.
But sometimes, you may be taking on more than you can chew and you may begin to feel overwhelmed.
That’s why it’s important to set healthy boundaries for yourself. Learn to say ‘no’ and only take on what you know you can handle.
We all get a bit stressed from time-to-time. But what’s important is how you react and manage these stressors in order to live a healthy and positive life.
So, this April as part of Stress Awareness Month, take a step back and analyse your workload; if you’re taking on too much, relax and practice some of the methods in this guide to combat stress.
If you need any more information on how you can effectively manage your stress levels, keep calm and visit the NHS website.