What does stress do to your body?
Stress seems like a normal part of everyday life for most of us, and our bodies deal well with short-term stress. Long-term, chronic stress is a different matter however; it can disrupt the way your body works. Stress could be caused by work pressure, financial worries, your personal life or other factors, but the key to staying happy and healthy is reducing your stress levels, whatever is causing them.
Defined as 'the body's reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response'. stress can elicit physical, emotional or mental responses. It can be a positive thing, pushing us through difficult periods in our life and forcing us to adapt to change, but continuous stress without periods of relaxation is bad news for your body, and your wellbeing.
Symptoms of stress
Figure from the Health and Safety Executive show that around 10.4 million working days a year are lost to stress, anxiety and depression. If you work as a social worker, teacher or public administrator, you're most likely to experience work-related stress (1). Stress can harm our health when we turn to coping mechanisms such as drugs, alcohol, smoking or even comfort eating to help relieve symptoms. Whilst these may make you feel better and more relaxed, they actually keep your body in a constant state of stress, leading to more problems in the long-term. Stress can affect our emotions, behaviour, physical health and even our ability to think. Physical symptoms could include:
- Lack of energy
- Aches and pains
- Upset stomach
- Loss of libido
- Weakened immune system - frequent colds and illnesses
- Dry mouth
- Excess sweating
- Cold or sweaty hands and feet
Emotional symptoms could include:
- A feeling of being overwhelmed
- Loss of control or control freak tendencies
- Moody, frustrated and agitated behaviour
- Difficulty relaxing
- Avoiding other people
- Depression, loneliness and low self-esteem
What does stress actually do to your body?
Stress can impact your entire body, causing physical, mental and emotional changes. We look at the various body systems and how stress affects each one - the results are surprising!
When you're stressed, you'll probably find yourself breathing faster or even hyperventilating and feeling short of breath. Over the longer term, this can make you more susceptible to upper respiratory tract infections.
Under stress, the hormones released by your body cause your liver to produce more blood sugar than normal to fuel your 'fight or flight' response. In the long term, this can elevate blood glucose levels and increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Short bouts of stress cause your heart to beat faster and your blood pressure to rise. Long-term stress narrows your arteries, elevates your cholesterol levels and puts you at increased risk of heart attack, heart disease and stroke.
Your body's adrenal glands produce a cocktail of stress hormones including epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. Elevated levels of these over an extended period of time can increase your risk of depression and could also impact your memory and learning.
Short-term stress is good news for your immune system, helping it to fight infection. Chronic stress is a different matter though, slowing the healing of wounds and worsening skin conditions such as eczema and acne.
You know the way you feel after a night out drinking? Chronic stress can cause similar symptoms such as nausea, indigestion, bloating and dry mouth. It can stimulate your intestinal muscles, which could lead to constipation or diarrhoea. Ongoing stress can put a strain on your digestive system, leading to severe heartburn, ulcers or the development of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
We've all experienced tense muscles and aches and pains in our neck, back and shoulders after a stressful day at work. Constantly tight muscles can lead to chronic neck, shoulder and back pain as well as headaches, but did you know that you're also more likely to develop osteoporosis if you suffer from chronic stress (2)?
So how can you manage and reduce your stress levels?
Being healthier and happier, as well as more relaxed, starts with taking steps to manage and reduce your stress levels, Sometimes this isn't easy - for example a stressful period at work may just be something you need to work through - but taking steps to reduce stress levels as much as you can should also reduce the strain on your body. Here are a few tips which will help:
- Don't turn to alcohol, drugs, smoking or comfort eating to reduce stress as these can make the problem worse. A healthy diet, plenty of sleep and regular exercise will ensure your body is fit and healthy, therefore making it easier to cope with periods of stress
- Take some time out - alone time helps you to deal with your problems and take care of yourself without worrying about others. Switch off technology and enjoy a little solitude; it's really good for you
- Practise relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, yoga, meditation or Tai Chi. These are all great ways to relax and reconnect with your mind and body, reducing your stress levels and leaving you feeling happier
- Relinquish control. We all need to accept that there are just some things in life we can't control! This will help you to feel less stressed and anxious
- Identify the sources of stress in your life and take steps to manage them. Overloaded at work? You could speak to your boss or ask a colleague for help. Family stress at home? Take time to sit down and talk about your problems together rather than suffering from sleepless nights
- Get plenty of exercise - exercise increases our body's production of endorphins, feel-good chemicals which help us to feel more peaceful, reduce tension and increase our self-esteem. Exercise also takes your mind off your problems as you're focused fully on your workout and reaching your fitness goals
Chronic stress can seriously impact your health - and just because everyone you know seems to be stressed constantly, doesn't mean that you have to accept stress as a regular part of your life. Reducing your stress levels in any way you can protects your body and reduces your risk of serious health problems in the future. Take one step to minimise stress in your life today - we'd love to hear about it!
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