Feeling stressed is a day-to-day occurrence, but what happens when it’s chronic? You experience an everyday realisation that you are overwhelmed, burned out, and at breaking point. In 2022, Stress awareness week is 7th to 11th November.
The aim of self-awareness week is to raise the profile of causes, health outcomes of stress and how to manage that everyday aggravation. If you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, then this article is for you...
What is stress?
Stress is an innate response that has kept us safe for centuries. It’s a bodily mechanism that has kept our ancestors safe from predators and changing mammoths. As you can imagine nowadays, we don’t use our stress response quite the same. According to the ‘Mental Health Foundation’, 74% of us recorded feeling ‘so stressed we were unable to cope’.
So, what causes us to feel stressed? Stress begins in the brain signalling our ‘fight or flight’ response. 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’.
As discussed above, over the centuries our stressors have changed a little. Some examples of modern-day acute or chronic stressors that stimulate our stress response can be seen below:
- Missing the bus
- Hosting a big work meeting
- Receiving an unexpected bill
- Moving house
- Going through a divorce
- Grief and bereavement
What are the symptoms of stress..
Palms sweating, hands juddering and pulse racing...we have all been there. The NHS has shared several symptoms related to chronic stress below:
- Feeling overwhelmed at even minor tasks
- Poor concentrations
- A racing mind
- Chronic irritability
- Feeling worried or anxious
- A lack of self-confidence
- Feeling lethargic
- Poor motivation and avoidance behaviours
- Difficulty Sleeping
- Changes in eating pattern and behaviours
What can Stress do your Health?
Stress is an unsettling feeling regardless, but did you know that chronic stress has been shown to have a long-term effect on your health including your glycaemic, mental and immune health:
Stress can have a profound effect on your mental wellbeing, a 2016 study looked at blood, saliva and urine cortisol levels on people aged between 16-25 years. All of these participants had comorbidity mental health issues. ‘Normal’ cortisol concentration is highest in the morning and then slowly decreases throughout the day. Whereas in people with depression this is switched. A 2013 study found that people with a depression diagnosis have a cortisol peak earlier in the morning and this does not begin to decrease until the afternoon or evening.
The stress response causes the body to feel like its constantly on ‘edge’. This can put the body under immense distress which can cause changes to glucose storage and blood glucose. If our body undergoes stress, it releases glucose from storage, into the blood for the muscles and organs to use. You can imagine that experiencing chronic stress, causes this mechanism to overact. 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 process has been shown to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
In the flight or fight response some bodily functions are prioritised over others such as blood flow and energy delivery to muscles. As a result, there are other mechanism that 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.
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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