How does stress affect our bodies and mental health?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Stress is something that most of us will experience on a weekly or monthly basis. It could be pressure from work, a busy household with children to look after, life events or finances; the list is endless, as what is stressful for one person isn’t for another.

Therefore, this Stress Awareness Month we’re looking at how to cope with this pressure and the effects of stress on our bodies and mental health.

According to mental health charity Mind, “Being under pressure is a normal part of life. It can help you take action, feel more energised and get results. But if you often become overwhelmed by stress, these feelings could start to be a problem for you.” It’s our ability to cope with these stressful situations that determines which way we’re going to go – either using it to help get the job done or struggling to manage.

Causes of stress

It can be difficult to pinpoint what is causing you stress, especially if you don’t recognise that you’re in this state, but essentially stress is built into us to help us respond to threatening or pressured situations – fight or flight.

It creates a high state of alert which can help fuel productivity or, at the other end of the scale, cause us to retract. Either way, constantly being in this heightened state isn’t ideal.

Stress can manifest from a variety of situations but it can be caused by:

  • looming deadlines at work,
  • changes happening in your life that you can’t control,
  • life events, such as buying a house, changing jobs or getting married.

Mind categorise causes of stress and say they come under:

  • personal,
  • friends and family,
  • employment and study,
  • housing,
  • money.

Although some of these events, such as getting married and having a baby, should be deemed as happy events they too can be stressful. “…they can bring big changes or make unusual demands on you. This can be particularly difficult to deal with, because you might feel there's additional pressure on you to be positive.”

Workplace stress

One of most common causes of stress can be seen to be workplace stress. It can be that your boss is piling on the workload and you’re struggling to cope, the company are going through some changes and you might be facing a role change or redundancy, or that you’re finding it difficult to get on with your colleagues – whatever the situation, if it’s causing you too much stress then changes need to be made.

Ignoring what is going on and not taking control will only make the problem worse. If however, there is nothing you can do to change what is happening then learning to cope until it eases or focusing your energy elsewhere can help relieve some of your stresses.

At the end of your work day if you are feeling overwhelmed, then stop and think back over your day and see if you can determine the point in which your stress levels started to creep up. Make a note of it on the days you feel overwhelmed and see if there are any common themes or tasks that are causing it.

>>Read more on how to implement a healthier lifestyle at work

Effects of stress

Stress can manifest both physically and mentally. It can range from headaches to lacking in self-esteem and making you feel exhausted. Women's Health said  “frequent stress can cause your brain to limit the amount of cortisol it sends into your bloodstream” therefore leaving you feeling tired and worn out.

Other effects include:

  • Forgetfulness – extreme or traumatic stress can impact your hippocampus which is the area of your brain that keeps hold of your memories. This type of stress occurs “when you feel a threat to your life or a loved one's life and feels like intense fear or helplessness’ and can shrink your hippocampus, meaning you find it hard to remember facts and lists.
  • Sleep problems – not being able to switch your brain off, as thoughts about what you’ve got to do tomorrow are constantly whirring around.
  • Weight can be affected – stress can make you binge-eat or not eat at all.
  • Aches and pains – when you’re in a stressed state your heart rate and blood pressure increases, so your body thinks it needs to go into that fight or flight mode as a response. Your muscles therefore tighten and can intensify any aches or pains, especially true for those who sit at a desk all day.

Best ways to destress

It can be difficult to work out what it is that’s causing you to feel overwhelmed. But taking steps to better manage your stress can help both short and long-term, as should a stressful situation arise in the future then you’re better equipped to deal with it.

There are a few ways in which we can help ourselves to combat our stress:

  1. Be active – it seems that we’re always being told to exercise for some reason or another, but, it can actually help us feel calmer, and improve our mental wellbeing. Any form of exercise distracts our minds and diverts our focus away from the stressful thoughts onto the activity we’re doing.
  2. Relax your mind – whether that’s meditation, reading, mindfulness or going for a walk, empty your head of any negativity. You may even find you’re sleeping better or can begin to switch off when you’re leaving the office.
  3. Talk to people – a problem shared can be a problem halved. Connect with those around you and talk to your friends about what’s bothering you or better still, if your stress is work-related, then talk to your colleagues and, if you can, your boss.

With lots of advice available to help combat stress it’s about finding out what works for you. Find more tips on the NHS website or head to Mind who offer advice on various treatments.

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