Stress is a normal response that the human body has to a threat or a perceived threat in our environment. We respond to physical, psychological or emotional stressors by activating a complex series of changes within our body. We are wired to increase our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing frequency and release glucose into our blood through the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Our muscles tense, we start to sweat: this is the fight or flight response that we have evolved to help us survive threats in our environment. Once the stressor has passed, our bodies return to our normal state.
The environment our ancestors evolved in is very different to the modern industrialised world we live in today. Our ancestors developed a stress response to a dangerous situation for example a predator trying to hunt them and when the stress went away their bodies returned to the baseline unstressed state.
In our world many times we encounter stressors that do not go away quickly. Whether the stress is physical (predator attacking), emotional (unhealthy relationship) or perceived (unhealthy work environment, financial pressure, traffic jams), our bodies have evolved to react in the same way. When the stressor in our environment doesn’t go away, this is when the stress and therefore the stress response become long term or chronic.
Chronic stress causes the same release of hormones and changes in our body such as high blood pressure, high glucose over a longer period of time and is associated with chronic health problems such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, mental illnesses, cancer and autoimmune syndromes.
Chronic stress also causes an elevated inflammatory response which damages blood vessels and end organs such as the heart and brain in the long term. As we have discussed in previous blogs, this chronic low grade inflammation is responsible for many chronic conditions. The relationship between stress and chronic disease is complex and will differ between individuals depending on their susceptibility to stress.
Stress can present in many different ways and symptoms may affect you physically, mentally and emotionally. Some common effects of stress on your body include headaches, fatigue, muscle tension, stomach upset, chest pain, being more susceptible to infections. Stress may also affect your mood - making you feel anxious, restless, lacking motivation, or depressed. Chronic stress also increases the risk of using tobacco, drugs or alcohol, and poor eating habits.
The pace and challenges of modern life make stress unavoidable. The short-term stress response is beneficial to help us deal with difficult situations. Long term stress responses are associated with poor health so it is important to identify stressors in your life and manage them and find ways to deal with them to improve short and long term health.
There are many proven stress management tools we can use to help us respond to stress and improve our wellbeing, and different strategies to manage stress will work differently in different individuals.
The following stress management tools have proven health benefits:
Getting regular physical exercise - choose activities you enjoy. Being active improves physical and mental health. It can help refocus your energy, socialise with others, get you outdoors and sleep better.
Eating a healthy and nutritious diet - having well balanced nutrition supports a healthy immune system and provides us with the correct nutrients our bodies require to function optimally (for example foods rich in omega-3 fats reduce cortisol our stress hormone).
Consistently getting enough quality sleep - adequate sleep drastically reduces our levels of anxiety and feelings of stress by reducing our levels of stress hormones. As sleep and stress have a bidirectional relationship, practicing good sleep hygiene is very important.
Spend time with family and friends - people with high levels of social support are more resilient to stress and have lower perceptions of stress and lower physiological response in stressful situations.
Practice relaxation techniques - find a relaxing activity which helps you unwind. Activities such as yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, a relaxing bath or a massage. It may also be something more active like walking or playing a sport.
Schedule time for your hobbies - make time for yourself and do things you enjoy.
Try and get outside into nature as often as possible - getting outside in the sunlight and in nature is associated with good social, mental and physical health, lowers blood pressure, enhances our immune system and reduces anxiety.
Stay away from harmful substances such as tobacco and alcohol - apart from being detrimental to our overall health, smoking and alcohol can actually worsen your mood and anxiety.
Certain idle ways which we think help manage our stress such as watching television or playing video games, in fact do more harm than good in the long term.
It is impossible to avoid all stress in our lives so it is important that we actively employ the correct strategies to help us decrease our stress response and the improve our short and long term health outcomes. If we are struggling to cope it is important to seek help and support from friends and family or professionals.
Our mental health is extremely important to our overall well being and stress management is central to this. It is considered to be the one of the 6 pillars of lifestyle medicine, along with exercise, nutrition, sleep, avoidance of substance abuse and social connection - all of which are interlinked to each other.