Stress is an ever-present part of life for millions of people today. Demanding jobs, responsibilities at home, financial pressures and precarious work-life balances are enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed.
Stress is part of the body’s natural fight or flight reaction to difficult situations. This reaction includes increased heart rate and breathing and the release of certain hormones like adrenaline and cortisol into the brain. These changes give you increased awareness and energy for dealing with short term threats and problems, but the body isn’t meant to stay in this heightened state for long. Prolonged or long-term stress can lead to all kinds of negative health consequences.
Here are 6 of the Health Changes Caused by Stress that You Need to be Aware of:
1) Heart Problems
Stress increases the heart rate and increases tension in your blood vessels, increasing blood pressure. You don’t have to be a scientist to figure out that increased blood pressure and more strain on your heart are not good. Sure enough, a direct link has been found between self-reported stress levels and artery damage. Increased risk of stroke and heart attacks are also well-proven side effects of long term stress.
2) Immune System
Stress actually boosts your immune system in the short term- great for tackling imminent work deadlines or big events in your calendar. But in the long run the release of cortisol into the blood works to inhibit your immune system. This makes stressed out people a lot more susceptible to viral infections like colds and other, more serious diseases.
3) Mental Health
Another unsurprising side effect of long term stress is mental health and behaviour changes. Irritability and a general sense of unease can quickly develop into full blown depression and anxiety disorders. A massive proportion of depression cases are brought on by stressful life circumstances such as unhappiness at work, bereavement and divorce. As many as 90% of visits to GPs are brought on by stress-related problems.
One specific and rather unusual side effect of stress is increased cravings for sugary and unhealthy food. High cortisol levels can block receptors in the brain that control food intake, making you more likely to binge on sugary rubbish in an effort to make yourself feel better. This kind of “comfort eating” is bad news health-wise, especially since stress can directly cause weight gain even without the extra help from a poor diet.
The brain’s fight or flight reaction produces a state of hyper-arousal- increased alertness that can help with short term attention and energy. The problem is that these chemicals take a long time to switch off again. This, combined with the high levels of worry most people with stress suffer from, leads to difficulty sleeping as the mind keeps racing as you lay in bed trying to sleep. In the long term this can even damage sleep cycles and lead to sleep disorders which may outlast the original cause of the stress.
6) Memory and Performance
Another facet of the fight or flight response it that it increases blood flow to the muscles and to the most basic and vital parts of the brain. The knock-on effect is that less survival-focussed brain features tend to suffer. Stress therefore tends to have adverse effects on memory and recall as neurotransmitters in the brain are blocked by the build-up of hormones.
Stress can also lead to a reduced focus, poor concentration and a general inability to think straight, which is exactly the opposite of what is needed in most stressful situations!
Here are Some Important Tips to Overcome or Deal with Stress
If you were in any doubt before, hopefully now you understand that major stress levels aren’t something to ignore. Failing to take steps to combat stress not only has a wide range of health consequences, it actually impairs your ability to deal with the things that are making you stressed as you struggle with illness, anxiety and reduced mental acuity.
So what are the best ways to overcome stress?
- Exercise: regular exercise releases endorphins into the bloodstream which act as natural relaxers and mood-enhancers to lift you out of stress. Exercise also combats some of the effects of stress, such as weight gain and inability to sleep. Exercise is a great way to release tension in your body and mind, while also building self-esteem to combat the onset of anxiety and depression.
- Manage your time: stressful situations aren’t going to disappear by themselves, but stress can leave you overwhelmed and in a poor place to come up with an effective plan of action. You need to be intentional in coming up with a way of managing your time. Create a do-to list and rank all your tasks in order of priority. Have a look at what can be given to someone else to do and what can be cut out entirely. Come up with a timetable of how you will manage your day. Remember to include time for sleep and relaxation!
- Know when to stop: sometimes the best way to combat a stressful situation is to remove yourself from it. Learn when to say enough is enough and remember that a high-powered job or a busy lifestyle are not worth making yourself unhappy.
A bit of drama is part of daily life, and in most instances stress is just the body’s natural and perfectly healthy response. Be honest with yourself in identifying when stress has become too much to handle and begin coming up with ways to reduce it before you start to see the signs of these serious health conditions.