The Surprising Ways Stress Can Affect your Health

Thanks to modern-world factors like globalisation and hyper-connectedness, we live our lives with increasing speed. The sense of never having a chance to “switch off” combined with mounting expectations can lead to a feeling of helplessness. Add to that the pressures created by family and work, not to mention social media with its unstoppable news cycle and unattainable standards, and it’s no wonder the conversation around stress is becoming increasingly serious. The World Health Organisation named stress one of the greatest health threats to the world this century. So, let’s explore what stress is, how it affects us and how we can alleviate it.

 

 

What is stress?

According to some, stress is a survival tool. It’s a natural response to danger that floods the body with chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline, and increases heart rate and awareness in order to heighten reaction speed. It’s also known as the “fight or flight” response mechanism and factors that create this reaction are known as stressors. The mechanism is triggered by short term stressors like dangerous drivers and aggressive encounters, as well as longer term high pressure situations like large workloads and financial concerns. Although, sources of stress can come from anywhere.

Explaining stress theory in 1966, Dr Richard Lazarus says, “Stress arises when individuals perceive that they cannot adequately cope with the demands being made on them or with threats to their wellbeing.” So, the combination of those factors weighing on a person over a period of time can lead to feelings of stress.

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What are the signs that you are stressed?

Warning signs of stress range from the physical: exhaustion, lethargy, muscle tension, headaches and fainting, to the psychological, including lack of motivation, restlessness, anxiety and negativity. They all affect our outlook, our mental health, our relationships and our ability to manage and regulate our emotions, which in turn affects our lives.

How does stress affect your health?

When the body is in stress response mode, blood is diverted away from the internal organs and into the muscles, which is helpful in truly dangerous situations, but when long term stressors keep the body in that state for prolonged periods of time, it can be detrimental to our health.

The Stress Management Society explains that without normal blood flow, brain function can be reduced and digestion can be compromised, while higher levels of cortisol increases blood pressure. In turn, we experience those common symptoms of stress like exhaustion or lack of motivation, which may lead to neglect of personal needs like hygiene, fitness or interpersonal contact, all of which add to the cycle and exacerbate those feelings. Over a period of time, the pressure that chronic stress puts on the heart can lead to health problems such as heart disease or strokes.

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How can you reduce stress?

Managing and ultimately overcoming stress is about identifying your stressors, finding coping mechanisms to manage them and activities that combat them.

In Stay Healthy in the Tropics, Dr Gerard Lalande cites the many studies that have shown mindfulness to be an effective tool for managing stress. This practice of being present in the moment, focusing on our breathing and relaxation gives us space to step away from our stress and then to observe it more objectively. While meditation is a popular way to practice mindfulness and there are a number of apps and articles available online that guide you through mindful meditations, Dr Lalande notes that there are other ways to achieve it including yoga and walking.

Exercise is widely recognised to be beneficial for both your physical as well as your psychological well being. Healthy eating can also help to reduce stress both in terms of providing the nutrients you need to cope, but also as an act of self-care.

Prioritising your tasks is an important step to getting back in control, and making a point to give yourself time to relax is part of that, whether it’s with exercise, reading, massage, a visit to the onsen, or whatever works for you.

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