A Google search for ‘Stress poor health’ brings up more than 12.5 million results. It seems that the effects of excess stress on our health is a well-known concept. More than 80% of adults believe that stress can have a strong impact upon their health. So why should I bother to add anymore to the already saturated online world of stress? Well that is easy to answer. Stress is such an important factor to our overall health that can be effectively addressed when properly understood. In my professional experience, very few people really understand how stress physically affects them, nor do nor are they fully aware of the positive strategies available to support them going forwards. Therefore, I will attempt to bring the important issues together and provide some beneficial action steps to help towards resolving the negative physiological impact of chronic stress.
Firstly, let me point out that stress is not all bad! There is such a thing as good stress, believe it or not. The technical term eustress is literally translated from Greek to mean ‘good stress’. Eustress is when we have a positive cognitive and physical response to a stress that helps provide a sense of purpose and fulfilment. It is defined by how one perceives a stress e.g. a negative threat versus a positive challenge. Eustress could be derived from your daily employment, a homework assignment, an exercise regime, climbing a mountain, cooking a meal or doing some DIY in the house. Equally, if the perception of the tasks just listed is negative, then the resulting response may actually spill over into distress instead of eustress. Distress manifests as physical, psychological or social dysfunction that results in individuals feeling unable to bridge the gap with the requirements or expectations placed upon them. So there is a clear difference; good stress helps us have purpose and motivation whilst bad stress creates dysfunction that leaves us feeling overwhelmed and helpless. A lack of eustress leads to low levels of motivation and poor performance, whereas too much distress leads to fatigue, exhaustion and, once again, poor performance. The sweet spot for optimal performance is found somewhere between these two extremes.
The UK Labour Force Survey (2016) indicates that 11.7 million working days are lost annually due to work related stress. Stress accounted for 45% of all working days lost due to poor health. The 2009 APA survey indicated that the following regarding the health effects of those experiencing stress:
- 47% struggle with sleep
- 45% report increased anger and irritability
- 43% experience increased fatigue
- 40% have low motivation
- 34% feel sad or depressed
- 27% report increased digestive problems
Experiencing stress seems to be a very prevalent part of modern life, but despite the concerning statistics we must still realise that these statistics still indicate the majority of people appear to be capable of working and managing the daily stresses that are in their lives. Experiencing stress is only one side of the coin, the other side will relate to how individuals manage the stress that they are under and whether they engage in positive or negative coping strategies. In dealing with stress the 2008 APA survey reported the following common behaviours when undergoing stress:
- 56% women and 40% men reported eating poorly when stressed
- 43% women and 32% men reported napping more when stressed
- 25% women and 11% of men shopped more when stressed
- 18% reported drinking more alcohol when stressed
- 16% reported smoking when stressed
It is no surprise that poor dietary choices are the number one response to ongoing chronic stress. The body initiates a stream of hormonal reactions when under stress that ultimately leave us craving more sweet / fatty and energy dense foods. These powerful, stress driven appetite and craving signals are tough to ignore in our modern world of fast and junk food abundance! Again, this shows that our behaviours often change when under stress and not always for the better. Poor eating habits, increased fatigue, alcohol and smoking actually increase our physical stress. However, these steps do provide a means of mental self-medication that may help address our negative feelings in the present moment when we are feeling stressed.
Oftentimes stress is viewed primarily as a mental or emotion problem. The potential symptoms of excess stress certainly include these important concerns; however, the list of stress-related physical symptoms far exceeds the list of mental or emotional ones. Let me state it clearly, Stress is predominantly a physical problem! When our levels of stress move into the realm of distress there is a cascade of ongoing neural and hormonal changes that occur that bring about real, physical alteration of the systems and functions of the human body. These alterations in function will usually remain, and possibly even escalate, as long as the chronic distress remains in place.
The primary stress hormone is called cortisol, which is from a category of hormones known as the glucocorticoids. Cortisol is released from small glands that sit on top of the kidneys called the adrenals. The adrenals will only release cortisol following a chemical signal from the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland located in the brain. Cortisol is an essential hormone that supports our response to stress. Without it, we would struggle to react to almost any stressful situation. Cortisol passes through a daily rhythm under normal conditions with its levels in blood plasma peaking in the morning upon waking, with a gradual reduction through the day until its lowest point just after falling asleep at night. Supporting the daily rhythm of cortisol is essential to our stress management. The habits and choices we make can have a significant influence on this important 24-hour cycle. Chronic stress over time can have a negative influence on our daily cortisol rhythm, initially boosting levels beyond their normal parameters. In extreme cases the daily cortisol rhythm begins to fail and levels can drop as much as 25% lower than their normal daily outputs leaving us feeling sluggish, fatigued, with low mood and motivation.
Some of the more obvious physical changes in response to ongoing, chronic stress are:
- Disrupted sleeping patterns due to elevated night-time cortisol
- Difficulty getting going due to low morning cortisol
- Increased gut inflammation, bloating and digestive disruption
- Lowered immunity and susceptibility to colds / infection
- Highs and lows in energy levels and mood throughout the day
- Increased weight gain around the central torso, neck and face
The longer chronic stress is left unchecked to drain the body of its resources the more it will impact upon our health, chipping away just a little bit at a time. So rather than wait until you have a nervous breakdown or hit an emotional/motivational brick wall do something positive today to more effectively manage and reduce the stress in your life. Below are a range of suggestions. Do not try to do them all! That may be overwhelming and only increase your total stress. Rate these options from your perspective in terms of their difficulty from easiest to intermediate to challenging. Choose the ones that you feel will be easiest to follow first, then in future as you feel able apply the intermediate suggestions, then last of all the most challenging ones. By following a gradual application, you will help restore health a little at a time giving you the inner strength to face up to and apply the strategies that are more difficult.
- Take a complete 5-minute break from work once every hour and divert your attention to something relaxing e.g. apply simple breathing techniques.
- Drink fewer soft drinks, tea and coffee, replacing them with more water.
- Reduce sugar intake gradually over a 2-week period and replace with appetite suppressing, mood enhancing protein rich foods like eggs, cheeses, nuts, seeds etc.
- Vary your carbohydrate intake during the day, with low carbs at breakfast, moderate carbs at lunch then more generous carbs at dinner.
- Follow some simple steps to improve your sleep habits (See my Healthy sleep blog).
- Take a warm bath (even better with ½ cup of Epsom salts for muscle relaxation) before bed to help regulate body temperature and unwind prior to sleep (No stress TV, phone or tablet after the bath).
- Plan once or twice per week to engage in a physically restorative activity e.g. full massage, tai chi or yoga class, countryside or seaside walk etc.
- If life is currently overwhelming and stress is very high, then reduce your structured exercise (the gym can be a potent physical stress) and engage in more basic forms of physical activity for a while such as walking, gentle swimming, yoga etc.
- Introduce a simple form of daily planning / calendaring using a diary, your smart phone or computer calendar system – having life planned this way may seem an extra stress, but having organisation and order helps reduce perception of stress.
- Rate the importance and value of all the activities in your typical week from high to low – be brave and decide which activities (usually the low rated ones) can be removed or reduced in order to free up time and the lower your overall burden.
- Ginseng is a potent herb for those who feel overwhelmed with low motivation – taken first thing in the morning can be a stimulating and strengthening way to start the day.
- Rhodiola is a helpful herb for those who find that bouts of stress during the day is followed by fatigue, anxiety, and lack of mental focus – it is best taken at some point during the morning hours.
- Chamomile tea in the evening can help improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and reduce muscle tension.