Overwhelmed, burned out, at breaking point? These are all common phrases we use when we are feeling stressed. The month of April is stress awareness month and has been since 1992. This month aims to raise self-awareness of stress and the impact this can have on health. Not to mention, ways to help reduce stress in your everyday life. If you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders then this article is for you...
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s biological response to threat. You may have heard of our ‘fight or flight’ response, this is a caveman response that has adapted as society has. Previously this response would have been stimulated by a predator, whereas now, its stimulated by work or lifestyle events.
The physiological elements of stress begin in the brain, specially the at the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis (HPA). A neurotransmitter is released from the HPA to the pituitary gland, then finally, from the pituitary gland to the adrenal cortex above our kidneys. The adrenal cortex releases cortisol. This happens at the point of stress and for a few hours afterwards, this can make us feel ‘on edge’.
Stressors can be experienced every day or chronically. An example of an everyday stressor would be missing the bus, a big meeting at work or an unexpected bill in the post. Whereas, a chronic stressor would be moving house, going through a divorce or a bereavement.
Symptoms of stress..
According to the NHS here are some symptoms of stress.
- Feeling chronically overwhelmed
- You may have difficulty concentrating.
- You may find that your thoughts race through your mind.
- You may feel chronically worried or anxious.
- A lack of self-confidence.
Feeling worn out and tired.
- Struggling to sleep.
- Avoidance behaviour.
- Changes in eating behaviour.
Statistics around stress in the UK
According to the mental health foundation 74% of UK adults have reported feeling stressed, overwhelmed or unable to cope at some point over the last year. As a result of feeling emotional, stressed and overwhelmed 46% of people surveyed agreed that they ate too much unhealthy food following a stressful time.
It’s common to experience stress alongside some other diagnoses including anxiety and depression. In a 2018 survey, 51% of adults who felt stressed reported feeling depressed, 61% reported feeling anxious and 37% experienced loneliness.
Most frightening is that, 32% of adults reported experiencing suicidal thoughts as a direct result of stress. Of course, many of us feel stressed day-to-day but there is a wide scale of minimal everyday stress and life changing stress that someone may experience. If you are experiencing harmful thoughts due to the stress that you are under, we recommend consulting with your GP or healthcare practitioner.
Stress and our Health
The most common effect that stress has is to our mental wellbeing as discussed above. One 2016 study on people aged between 16-25 years found that a commonly reported feature of those diagnosed with mental health problems, was an increase in cortisol in blood, saliva and urine samples. Other physiological changes are reported in people diagnosed with depression, namely the natural rhythms of cortisol in the blood. In people without depression, cortisol is at its highest concentration in the morning and slowly decreases throughout the day. Whereas a 2013 study found that people with a depression diagnosis have their cortisol peak much earlier in the morning and this does not begin to decrease until the afternoon or evening.
The fight or flight mechanism activates the body ready for attack. This changes several mechanisms within the body, in this case, it is important to look at how it effects glucose storage and blood glucose. In readiness for a stressor our body releases glucose from storage, into the blood for the muscles and organs to use. In our ancestral time this would have been to flee from a threat. If a person is experiencing chronic stress, then this mechanism will be active over extended periods of time. Your body will perceive this as having excessively high blood glucose and try to reduce this using insulin. Having chronically high blood glucose can reduce insulin sensitivity which dysregulates the body’s ability to know when to release insulin and manage glucose. This has been shown to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
As a result of the flight or fight mechanism described above some mechanisms are promoted, such as blood flow and energy delivery to muscles, whereas some mechanisms are shunted such as the digestive and immune system. As a very unscientific and anecdotal measure how often do you get sick ‘at the worst times. These worst times are often periods of stress, in order to prioritise the stressor our body reduces immune protection. In small concentrations cortisol can act as an anti-inflammatory, however when circulatory cortisol is chronically high it can lead to the immune system becoming resistant to stress hormones an instead increasing production of inflammatory cytokines which can cause strain to the immune response.
What can you do to minimise stress?
Here are some easy tips to minimise stress, you don’t need to do them all at once, but you may like to experiment:
- Take 5 minutes somewhere in your day that is just for you.
- Analyse your life, what causes stress and what can you do to minimise these or remove them entirely from your life.
- Try deep breathing exercises or meditation
- Try to minimise caffeine as this can increase feelings of anxiety and or stress.
- Prioritise self-care and choosing activities that make you feel good.
- Indulge in a hobby that you love.
- Try light exercise such as walking, jogging, swimming, yoga or cycling.
- Reach out to a friend or family member for support.
- Look into relaxing herbal supplements such a chamomile, green tea, 5-HTP, Valerian and Lemon Balm.
- Seek support from a mental wellbeing specialist or your GP.
Resources for you
- NHS Every Mind Matters – LINK
- Mind Helplines- LINK
- Anxiety UK-LINK
- Healthy and Safety Executive for support in the work place- LINK
- Stress Busting- LINK
- Stress Management Society- LINK