Since 1992, April has been Stress Awareness Month. It’s something that we all feel to various degrees at different parts of our lives, but how aware of it are we? We’re using this month to highlight stress symptoms, what they can cause, and what you can do about them.
What is Stress?
Stress is your body’s way of responding to a demand or threat, but we also know it as an emotion; something that we feel when we’re under too much pressure. It’s been part of our physiology since we’ve been on the planet and something that early humans felt when they were threatened by predators. Although the threat of being killed by an animal much larger than us has (mostly) been removed, the body still reacts in the same way to emotional threats as it doesn’t always distinguish a difference between the two. This is when the “fight or flight” response kicks in which we’ll talk about shortly.
In some instances, stress can be good, for example, near exams, deadlines or competitions it can spur you on to be productive and try your best, but too much stress can have the opposite effect and be pretty damaging to your health.
Many people might feel down when they’re stressed, or have feelings of depression. Stress isn’t a mental health issue but it’s important to know that it can cause them and vice versa, especially if you experience it for a prolonged amount of time.
What happens to your body when you’re stressed?
When you’re stressed, your body can go into “fight or flight” mode. In other words, it prepares you to either fight what’s threatening you, or to run away from it. For both of these situations, you need energy, and this is where chemicals come into play to help you out.
When you’re under threat, your body releases the chemicals adrenaline (the same chemical that's released during a roller-coaster ride or similar) and cortisol as a response. Adrenaline increases your heart rate and energy, whilst cortisol is responsible for maintaining this energy by prioritising certain functions of the body. For example, cortisol can inhibit the production of insulin, meaning that the glucose you already have in your body is free for immediate use. It’s these two chemicals that are responsible for a surge in energy, but when the threat has disappeared or been dealt with, adrenaline and cortisol levels return to normal.
Unfortunately, if the threat isn’t removed, these chemicals may stay at an elevated level for longer, causing some concerning symptoms and even putting you at risk of some serious health conditions. This is a risk when we’re exposed to modern-day stress which could be work-related, a result of tension or an argument, or any other factor that might be negatively affecting you. If this happens, your blood pressure and glucose levels stay high, your heart will be working hard for a long time, and your arteries could become damaged. This is when you’re in danger of becoming ill if you don’t manage your stress levels
What are the symptoms of stress?
Some people experience some of the following symptoms without realising that they’re stressed. In these cases, it helps to take a step back, acknowledge what you’re feeling, and trying to determine the cause of your symptoms. You might recognise some of the feelings on the grid below, but not be stressed at all. However, this list is here to help people recognise signs that they might require some relaxation and down-time.
As you might have noticed, some of the symptoms can be indicators of other conditions, so if you’re concerned about your health or well-being, please see your doctor for advice.
What else can stress cause?
Due to the physiological changes in your body when you’re under stress mixed with a combination of the symptoms above, stress can cause or exacerbate some health conditions including:
• Mental health issues
• Cardiovascular diseases
• Menstrual problems
• Skin and hair problems
• Gastrointestinal problems
• Chronic pain
• Frequent sickness
• Low energy
• Low libido
• Digestive problems
If you feel like you’re under a lot of pressure or emotional tension and you have any of the above health problems, it’s extremely important to try to manage your stress levels as they could have disastrous or even fatal consequences.
There’s one condition that is linked to intense pressure, called stress cardiomyopathy (possibly better known as broken heart syndrome). Acute and extreme stress can cause rapid and severe heart muscle weakness, making the sufferer feel symptoms similar to those of a heart attack. Stress cardiomyopathy generally affects the left ventricle of the heart, making it enlarged and changing its shape meaning that it’s not able to pump blood as it normally would.
Luckily, stress cardiomyopathy is usually a temporary condition, with patients’ hearts able to repair themselves with rest. The British Heart Foundation state that it’s a condition caused by emotional or physical distress. However, just because it’s usually a temporary condition doesn’t mean that it can’t be serious, especially if the sufferer also has an underlying health condition. If you notice any chest pain or tightness, please ring 999 immediately and give your symptoms to the call handler.
Can stress kill?
In a round-about way, yes. Whilst “stress” might not be someone’s official cause of death, it can certainly contribute to some serious conditions as we’ve seen above. In fact, according to Dr Stephen Sinatra at heartmdinstitute.com, acute stress is the leading cause of sudden death.
We’ve already seen how chronic stress can lead to your heart working hard for a long time, high blood pressure, high blood sugar and damaged arteries, so it’s no surprise that it can be a contributing factor for heart disease or heart attack. It may even cause a stroke in some instances, especially if you have any underlying conditions.
The risks that chronic stress can bring are why it’s important to recognise the symptoms of it and know how to effectively manage them to maintain a healthy balance within your body.
How can I manage stress?
There are so many activities you can try to help reduce your stress levels. Whilst they might not work for everyone, it’s certainly worth exploring different ways that you can relax or feel less tense. Some of our tips for stress-relief are:
• Getting active. Even just walking might relieve some tension, and fresh air can help in several ways. Being more active has been proven to reduce stress levels.
• Do things you enjoy. This might sound obvious, but by taking time out to enjoy a hobby, you can remove yourself from a stressful situation or thought pattern.
• Prioritising. This one is especially helpful if your stress is work-related. Learning how to prioritise your workload can help to relieve stress that’s sometimes unnecessary.
• Surround yourself with a strong support network. No doubt having people to offload to can help in many situations. Making sure you aren’t isolated and that you have a good support network means that you can confide in your close friends and family when you need to. They might even have a solution to your stress that you hadn’t thought of.
• Take a break. Sometimes, taking a break from the source of stress can give your body and mind time to rest and recuperate. Whether this means taking a holiday, a break from social media, or distancing yourself from someone that’s causing you more harm than good, removing yourself from the situation can give you the break you need.
• Eat healthily. Whether you have any underlying conditions or not, eating a healthy diet while you’re stressed will provide your body with the vital nutrients that it needs. This is especially important whilst your heart is working harder than normal so it doesn’t have to contend with processed or fatty foods in addition to stress. It’s also proven that eating healthily can improve your mood, something with is always welcome when dealing with chronic stress.
• Talking therapies. If your stress is causing mental health problems, it might be worth self-referring to a talking therapy such as counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or interpersonal therapy (IPT). You should be able to talk to someone about which therapy would be most suitable for you before you start your sessions.
• Medication. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicines can be used to treat some mental health problems. If you think chronic stress is causing your mental health to plummet, please make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible to discuss treatment options.
• Mindfulness. This is the practice of appreciating the moment and taking in your surroundings in the here and now. There are some fantastic courses on mindfulness, and there are even apps available that can teach you how to become more aware of the present. This can help you to identify your symptoms and feelings as well as calming you down. Meditation and yoga may also be good if you find mindfulness to be helpful.
There are of course many more ways to relieve stress than what we’ve mentioned above, even if it takes a bit of time for you to find something that works. If you’re worried about your physical health, mental health or overall well-being, please speak to your doctor who’ll be able to help.