Stress: What’s on your mind?
We are all aware that stress has a negative impact on our health but do we really know the consequences of our actions?
A little stress can be a positive influence and can motivate us to power through certain tasks, but the prolonged effect of constant stress is a very different beast.
The automatic reactions developed in early humans to protect them from dangers (i.e. being caught and eaten by beasts of prey) still occur in us today. When we recognize a threat our bodies rise to the challenge, hormones are released to raise your heart rate, increase blood pressure, increase energy etc and you are ready to face the issue.
The problem is that today’s response isn’t because your life hangs in the balance, its probably because you are stuck at the traffic lights, running late for an appointment, you could be trying to pay your bills, responding to an email or just a bit tired from lack of sleep.
You see our body recognizes a stress, but it doesn’t really matter where it comes from (mental, emotional or physical). Simplicity in early man has been replaced by an over stimulated, under nourished, inadequately rested, most probably frazzled person who’s fight or flight response can become stuck in activation mode, and that, unfortunately, can be seriously detrimental to your health.
So what happens?
Chronic stress has been shown to cause changes in the amygdala – the part of the brain that regulates emotions including fear and anxiety. When certain connections were lost, it means the brain is less able to adapt to new experiences, meaning it becomes trapped in a state of anxiety or depression.
Extended stress can lead to fatigue, inability to concentrate, mood changes, digestive issues and sleep disturbance but it can also affect you on a deeper level.
Existing conditions can be worsened, experiencing chronic stress as a child can impact your stress response in adulthood, can initiate structural changes in your central nervous system, cause immune dysfunction and even early death.
Unfortunately many of the modern day consequences of stress including substance abuse, sleep problems, eating disorders and smoking can all impact our overall health, leading to further stress for our bodies.
Chronic extended stress can ultimately lead to damaged arteries and plaque formation, suppressed immunity, exacerbation of autoimmune disease – for example stress is associated with increased swelling and reduced mobility in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, and exacerbation of multiple sclerosis.
The groundbreaking mental health foundation study 2018 showed:
In the past year, 74% of people interviewed have felt so stressed they have become overwhelmed or unable to cope.
46% reported they ate badly due to stress,
29% started or increased alcohol intake due to stress
16% reported starting or increased smoking habits due to stress.
The psychological effects of stress resulted in:
51% of adults with stress felt depressed and 61% were anxious.
37% of stress reported adults were lonely as a consequence and
16 % of those who had reported feeling stressed at some point had self-harmed and 32% described suicidal thoughts.
Modern day causes of stress
Reported concerns include:
- Health conditions, either their own or someone close
- Feelings of having to respond instantly to communications/messages
- Comparing ones self to others
- Body image and appearance
- Housing concerns
- The pressure to succeed.
Not to mention the pressures of family life, juggling numerous things at once and not to mention school, college, university and the workplace.
So what can you do?
Many activities can induce the rest and digest response – the opposite to the fight or flight sensations we feel. They include:
- Spend time in nature
- Spending time with friends or family
- Meditate – this can be as simple as taking slow deep breathes or using an app such as headspace, calm etc
- Journaling – the act of writing down your worries and how you feel can be immensely powerful in releasing your worries and may able you to develop a plan to address your issues.
- Exercise – although be careful not to push yourself too far as this can become a stressor for the body
- Spend time in Nature – you can’t beat a walk in a forest
- Quiet time with our animals
- Get adequate sleep – if you can
- Try a powerful, positive mindset. A study of 30,000 people found that those who believed that their high stress was harmful to their health had a 43% increase in risk of premature death. Those with high stress who did not believe the stress could cause them harm had a risk that was lower than those who claimed their stress was low.
- By cherishing and appreciating who and what is around us and the luxuries we take for granted, we can start to change our mindset.
- Diet – this is so important it deserves a post all of its own, but by reducing stimulants that can fuel a continued reaction, we can start to reduce the impact on our nervous system.
- Take some time for self care – a massage, reflexology, and acupuncture can all be beneficial, as can a warm bath before bed.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help, this is a strength, not a weakness.
William James said ‘ the greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another’.
Stress is not always the problem, how we respond to it is.
Jamieson, J. Nock, M. (2012). ‘Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress’, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 141 (3), pp.417-422.
Lau, T. Bigio, B. McEwen, B. et al. (2017). ‘Stress induced structural plascicity of medial amygdale stellate neurons and rapid prevention by a candidate antidepressant’, Molecular Psychiatry, 22, pp.227-234.
Schneiderman, N. Ironson, G. Siegel, S. (2005). ‘Stress and Health: Psychological, behavioural and biological determinants’, Annual Review of Clinical Psychology’, 2005 (1), pp.607-628.