In today’s society, we thrive on performance, competition and perfection, which leads to an insidious increase in stress. Stress causes damage that is often underestimated, and it is a social phenomenon that should be closely examined and evaluated.
What exactly is stress?
Stress is good when it helps you outmanoeuvre a charging bull or hurry away from a menacing figure in a dark alleyway. In such fight-or-flight predicaments, stress stimuli galvanise the body to respond in a physiological way. This response kicks off a horde of neurochemical, neurotransmitter, and hormonal changes by activating the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. These systems fire off chemical mediators to protect the body. For instance, a surge of catecholamines cranks up heart rate and blood pressure, helping you to fight that bull or take flight from that menacing malefactor.
So far, so good. But, when stress is continuous, when it doesn’t let up or go away, then good stress (which has an actual name: eustress) drops out of the picture and bad stress (aka, distress) moves in. This bad, chronic stress can gradually wear the body down, causing or exacerbating common physical illnesses.
Impact of constant stress
If you’re constantly under stress, you can have physical symptoms, such as headaches, an upset stomach, high blood pressure, chest pain, and problems with sex and sleep. Stress can also lead to emotional problems, depression, panic attacks, or other forms of anxiety and worry.
Stress doesn’t only make us feel awful emotionally, it can also exacerbate just about any health condition you can think of. For instance, the relationship between stress and inflammation has been studied rigorously in the past decade. Researchers have found evidence that the inflammatory pathway is pivotal in the pathogenesis of many chronic diseases. In fact, 75 per cent to 90 per cent of human disease is related to stress and inflammation, including cardiovascular and metabolic diseases and neurodegenerative disorders.
Chronic stress affects type 2 diabetes in at least a couple of ways. For many of us, we eat more indulgent or junk food as a way to appease stress. Investigators have shown that stress eating predicts worse glycemic control, pre-diabetes, and diabetes
Moreover, stress may contribute to cancer risk and, especially, disease progression. Research in animals has indicated that stress contributes to the formation, growth, and metastasis of certain tumours. In humans, researchers have learned that stress affects key pathogenic processes in cancer, such as antiviral defences, DNA repair, and cellular aging.
Act to manage stress
Stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behaviour. Being able to recognise common stress symptoms can help you manage them. Stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to many health problems. But, before you get too stressed out about being stressed out, there is some good news. Following some simple stress relief tips could both lower your stress and lower your health risks.
Physical symptoms of stress include: aches and pains; chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing; exhaustion or trouble sleeping; headaches, dizziness or shaking; high blood pressure; muscle tension or jaw clenching; stomach or digestive problems; trouble having sex; weak immune system.
Emotional and mental symptoms include: anxiety or irritability; depression; panic attacks; sadness.
And, behavioural include: overeating or developing an eating disorder; participating compulsively in sex, shopping or internet browsing; smoking or using drugs.
Beat that stress
If you have stress symptoms, taking steps to manage your stress can have many health benefits. Explore stress management strategies, such as:
Be observant: Recognise the signs of your body’s response to stress and make a checklist with the above-mentioned markers.
Get regular physical activity: Practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi or massage. Aim to find active ways to manage your stress. Inactive ways to manage stress – such as watching television, surfing the internet or playing video games – may seem relaxing, but they may increase your stress over the long-term.
Keeping a sense of humour: Laughter may not be the only medicine, but it does have some healing properties. Sometimes a distraction is all you need to feel better.
Take some time off: Spending time with family and friends and setting aside time for hobbies, such as reading a book or listening to music can be helpful.
Set goals and priorities: Decide what must get done now and what can wait. Learn to say “no” to new tasks if you start to feel like you’re taking on too much. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.
Stay connected: You are not alone. Keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help. To reduce stress, ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organisations
Seek professional help: If you’re not sure if stress is the cause or if you’ve taken steps to control your stress but your symptoms continue, see your doctor. Your healthcare provider may want to check for other potential causes and help you learn new coping tools.