In this article, we look at stress: what it is, the types of stress we experience, how it affects our health and how to manage it.
The word stress usually has negative connotations; it’s a bad thing. But, stress is not necessarily bad for you. We need some stress for the release of certain hormones and for biological responses to happen. If we look back at the development of the human race, it was stress that created the fight or flight response in our bodies. Our ancestors were able to run away from danger and assist in hunting down and capturing their prey.
As time has progressed, our ‘stressors’ have changed from sabre tooth tigers and woolly mammoths to work deadlines and debt letters. We have also seen a rise in the amount of stress and the frequency that we experience it. Especially now, during the current lockdown situation, people are having additional stressors placed on them.
Prolonged exposure to stress harms us, physically and mentally. We need to develop an understanding of what stress is and how to manage it. In this article, we will look at the types of stress we experience and what this does to us both physically and mentally. We will also give you some stress management tips you can use in your day to day life.
Modern-day sabre tooth tigers
Now, more than ever, our lifestyles inflict stress on us from all angles. Our lifestyles over the last few decades have changed, and multiple stressors are prevalent in day to day life for much of the population. These include:
People experience additional stress from increased workloads and project deadlines. The typical job over the last 50 years has progressed from manual labour, which is physically stressful, to admin and digital-based activity, which is more mentally stressful.
You may be working long hours and taking work home with you, which then impacts on your home life and commitments. The additional attention to work can cause relationship stress within families. You may get back from work to a list of ‘home admin’ which you also must complete. Are you a co-parent or acting as a support for a loved one, meaning you have to match your home schedule to other people?
There are not many jobs in today’s market that are ‘clock in – clock out’. In most jobs you perform ‘homework’ or stay late to complete the tasks assigned to you. The extra workload affects your ability to complete your home-based jobs and further reduces a lot of your downtime. Poor time management leads to late nights, early mornings and poor food and drink choices to help save time.
Many people tend to make poor diet choices. This is partly due to lack of time to prepare and cook healthy meals. But often junk food is used as a stress relief. On top of that, you may also have copious amounts of caffeine and the odd glass of wine or bottle of beer each night to help you unwind. These patterns can become habitual, and you will automatically do them, even when you are not stressed.
Around 8.3 million people in the UK are in some form of debt. Debt can range from controlled money owed, to bankruptcy. The pressure for repayments and keeping ahead of debts can give rise to additional stress. The extra stress can also lead to people taking on a higher workload to increase income, which then forms a cycle of the above stressors.
During this last decade, we have seen the phenomenon of social media, and with it, access to information and connections. People from all over the world can comment and criticise on your personal life. There is also the pressure to fit the socially accepted image of how you should look, feel and act.
That is quite an extensive list of stressors that you can face. You may only face one or two of these, or you may be facing them all. Some of them are in your control, and some are not. Throughout this article, we will break down the different types of stress and discuss how stress affects your body. Don’t despair; it is not all doom and gloom! We will also go through some of the best stress management protocols you can use to help alleviate the effects of stress.
What is stress?
Any stimulus we provide to our body, external or internal, that creates a biological response is considered a stressor. For example, sitting down to eat your dinner is regarded as a stressor to your body. How your body reacts to a stressor is known as a stress response. A lot of stress we face daily is low level and does not cause any significant negative reaction. However, stress should be temporary, with the side effects subsiding shortly after the experience.
With lifestyle stressors being ever-present, this can lead to extended stress responses. We place stress in three categories, based on the intensity and duration of the effect it has on the body.
Acute stress is the most common level of stress you face daily. When you experience stress, your ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered, which causes symptoms such as a sharp rise in blood pressure and heightened senses and reflexes. Examples of acute stress might be when you get into a heated argument on the road with another driver, or you have a near-miss accident at home or work.
It doesn’t have to come from a bad experience; you could get it when you experience the cheer of a packed-out sports stadium when a team scores a goal or point.
Other possible symptoms you may experience are headaches, anxiety or irritability. Usually, they will be short and ease off at the same rate as the other symptoms. These symptoms may return if you dwell or relive the incident in your mind after it has occurred.
Episodic stress is when the acute stress continues to happen as a regular experience. For example, you may always be worrying about a work project or deadline. It is usually characteristic of people who are pessimistic, worry a lot or always seem to be in crisis. Often, it is at this stage we begin to see more severe and prolonged adverse effects on health, which we will discuss later.
The application of poor coping strategies, such as drinking, drug use or food abuse, can give rise to higher health risks. It is usually at this stage, sufferers accept that this stress is part of their lifestyle and accept it, without exploring better stress management protocols.
If you experience episodic stress for too long, it can build up and become chronic stress. Sufferers of chronic stress will experience a multitude of symptoms consistently in their day to day life. Chronic stress can also be brought on by a traumatic event, which leaves a lasting effect on you psychologically.
The effect of chronic stress dramatically increases the health risks associated with stress. As it has a more significant impact on your mentality, the onset of deep depression and, worst case, suicide, are common side effects. Sufferers of chronic stress need to reach out for medical support as soon as possible.
Fight or flight response
Before we can talk about the adverse effects of stress, we need to look at what happens when we experience stress. Your natural response to stress is to trigger what is called the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is the near-instant reaction your body experiences in response to a significant stressor. It’s called fight or flight, also sometimes fight or freeze, because it can cause people to react positively – fight – or negatively – flight or freeze.
With significant stressors placed on the body, your sympathetic nervous system releases a surge of hormones into your bloodstream:
Cortisol – cortisol causes an increase in blood sugar through a process called gluconeogenesis. It does this to suppress the immune system and increase the metabolism of carbs, fats and proteins. In short, it provides energy for your body’s immediate use.
Adrenaline – Adrenaline is also known as epinephrine. You may be familiar with this name as it’s a conventional medication. Epi-pens combat severe allergic reactions and stop someone going into a critical state after going into anaphylactic shock. Adrenaline causes an increase of heart rate, providing more blood to the muscles. It also increases your reaction speeds slightly and raises blood sugar. So, cortisol increases the release of energy, and adrenaline allows your body to use it. It’s a minor performance enhancer, designed for short burst use.
Noradrenaline – As adrenaline increases the body’s response and performance; noradrenaline does the same for your brain. The release of noradrenaline, also known as norepinephrine, increases arousal and allows for greater focus. It also systematically increases heart rate and blood pressure.
Natural performance enhancer
In summary, the combination of all three hormones creates a natural performance enhancer for our bodies. The release of these hormones allows you to increase output for a short period. Originally it was designed to help us fight or face an aggressor, which is not common in today’s lifestyle. However, you can feel its effect when you get stressed.
Typical symptoms will be feeling your heart rate rise, an increase in breathing rate and depth of breath, a sense of irritability and a buzz of energy in your body. You may experience better focus on a task and a mental sense of wanting to get something done. It can cause a nausea feeling as blood moves away from the stomach and gut to the heart, lungs and limbs. You are likely also to start sweating as your temperature rises but, in some cases, you may feel your hands and feet become colder as the blood moves to the brain and muscles.
Side effects of stress
Prolonged exposure to stress increases several health risk factors, both physically and mentally. This article looks at multiple studies into stress and its effects on the human body. I will summarise some of the critical responses below:
Stress and the endocrine system
The endocrine system is a series of glands that are responsible for the secretion and regulation of hormones in the body. As we have already highlighted, the first response of the body is to release additional hormones to respond to the stressor. After the release of these hormones, suppressant hormones will be released to help counteract and neutralise the extra hormones. The more frequently your body is subjected to stressors, the more frequently the endocrine system has to work. Stress can either activate or affect different areas of the endocrine system, including the pituitary gland, thyroid and pancreas. As you will see from the following functions, there are multiple effects this has in the body.
Stress vs memory
If you’re exposed to noradrenaline and cortisol either at a high frequency (episodic stress) or for prolonged periods (chronic stress), it can cause a change in function and structure of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that controls long-term and short-term memory. The conclusion of the studies into stress and memory found that its effect can be individual, depending on several factors, including the intensity and the stressor event. The amount of exposure can help solidify short term memory but can also overwhelm and reduce accurate recollection of information. Stress can be successful for helping retention of information for exams. However, it has also been shown to negatively affect memory retrieval following a stressful event.
Stress vs cognition
Cognition is your brain’s processing of learning, decision making, attention or judgment making. Overexposure to stress can continue to cause alteration of brain function, which can lead to changes in cognitive and behavioural habits. You may have experienced this with someone you know. Perhaps that person experienced a prolonged period of stress and became more aggressive, with maybe a slight change in personality too.
The studies show that the effect of stress on cognition has many varying factors. The amount, frequency and type of stress all alter how it affects your cognition. The effect can differ between each person exposed to the same levels of stress. However, it is common to notice cognitive and behavioural changes similar to depression with prolonged exposure to chronic stress.
Stress and cardiovascular disease
Studies have found that workplace stressors increased coronary heart disease (CHD) and hypertension. It has also been shown that in women, marital stressors had a worse effect than work stressors, leading to the belief that women and men respond to stress differently. There is a knock-on effect of stress where sufferers look for relief in substance abuse, such as smoking and alcohol, which additionally contribute to CHD.
Most of the studies have looked more at the psychological stressors and disease development, but more research is required to isolate the exact form of stressor that affects disease development. There is an ethical issue of causing disease in humans, which has led to most studies being conducted on animals. That means we have to make assumptions about human responses.
From a physical perspective, we have already noted how adrenaline causes a rise in blood pressure and heart rate. If this expression of adrenaline is frequent and prolonged in duration, it can lead to a new raised heart rate and blood pressure even in the absence of adrenaline. The increased blood pressure is due to a process called vasoconstriction, where the veins tighten and increase the pressure.
Stress and the immune system
There are numerous studies into stress and the immune system. When we experience the fight or flight response, as explained earlier, many different hormones get released. Your body also releases modulators and suppressors to help you body get back to homeostasis. The influx of hormones can cause suppression of immune function. Those who suffer from chronic stress tend to experience immunosuppression. Normally, the release of the stress hormones at low frequencies causes positive adaptive changes, allowing the immune system to operate normally. However, when the hormones are frequently secreted, as with chronic stress, it causes detrimental changes, leading to the loss of function in the immune system.
Stress and GI function
The gastrointestinal (GI) system, transports food around the alimentary canal, processes food and absorbs the nutrients from it. Stress can affect this directly and indirectly.
Indirectly, stress can have a suppressant effect on your hunger. You may experience this yourself when you’re stressed. You may feel sick or not hungry when you usually would be. Most of the studies conducted to support this scientifically used mice. Scientists use mice because they are systematically very similar to humans.
Directly, multiple studies have shown how stress harms the GI tract. The main effect is an increase in inflammation, as well as the secretion of stomach acid and mucus with acute stress (fight or flight response). Suppression of the immune system also influences this as the immune system contributes to the healthy function of the digestive system. Scientists need to perform more studies to look at chronic stress and understand its effect on GI function.
How to manage stress
As you can see, overexposure to stress can cause severe adverse side effects for your physical and mental health. However, there are different ways in which you can either avoid stress or learn to manage its impact on you. Below, we list some of the protocols you can put in place to manage stress.
Acknowledge and identify
A lot of people are unaware of the stress placed upon them. Sometimes stress can be a process of slow build-up, like weight gain; a series of small increments. However, it can also be a sudden load, such as a catastrophic event. It’s essential to understand when you are stressed and identify what the stressor is. If you can do this, you have the option to remove the stressor or start your coping mechanisms to lessen its effect.
Exercise and stress
Exercise is a form of stress we place on our body. Performing exercise will cause a release of adrenaline and cortisol. Although these can be negative, exercise promotes the release of endorphins, which is the body’s natural happy drug. One of the key roles of endorphins is to relieve stress and pain in the body.
There aren’t many studies that have looked at the relationship between exercise and stress. However, there are plenty of studies which look at the effect of exercise on anxiety and depression. Exercise has a positive impact on depression as well as alleviating symptoms of anxiety.
A common practice of proactive sufferers of stress is to exercise. Going to the gym after a hard or bad day to let off some steam is common practice. Exercising often leaves you with a sense of achievement and happiness. Runners know this as the ‘runner’s high’ they experience after either a long-distance or face-paced run.
There is a link between stress and mental health and, as we seen, there is a link between mental health and exercise. I’ve worked with hundreds of clients over the decades, and almost invariably they have felt less stress as a result of the exercise programme.
Relaxation and meditation
You can partake in activities such as yoga or meditation to help reduce stress. Both yoga and meditation teach you to take control of your breathing. When you take control of your breathing, you will also notice a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure. If you practise meditation or yoga, it can teach you to be calm, which decreases the effects of stressors. Or if you’re already suffering from stress, it can help you manage the symptoms.
Nutrition and stress
A well-nourished body will be able to handle stressors better. There are many ways poor diet choices can be detrimental to your health and stress management. If you over-eat or under-eat, you can place additional stress on your body. When you eat foods devoid of nutrients, it can affect your immune and digestive system, causing stress. When you over-stress your body, as pointed out above, there are several systematic risks you are creating. A healthy balanced diet will help your body cope with the stressors placed upon it and speed up your recovery processes. Take a look at our previous article for a more in-depth and general look at diet and mental health.
It is common for people to use smoking, drinking and drugs to cope with day to day stressors. The consumption of these substances is never going to be favourable to your health and so constitutes abuse. We have already highlighted the harmful effects of these substances, as they contribute to the development of cancers and diseases. If you already consume these substances, you might want to consider a reduction or removal of them from your daily life. You can find help for stopping smoking here, or for other substances, you can use this link.
Sometimes, you create your stress by poor time management. When you try and cram too many tasks into a short time frame, or agree to deadlines that may be slightly unrealistic, it’s going to leave you experiencing stress. If you have several projects happening at once it is good practice to prioritise the tasks. This way, you can focus on the jobs that require your time more, rather than trying to complete all tasks at once. Where possible, you should delegate duties to other people who are capable of performing these tasks.
Talk to someone
Sometimes, just talking to people can help when you are stressed. Finding a friend or loved one can help you unload some of the stress. By discussing your problems with other people, they may help you come up with a solution to deal with the stress. If you feel you are suffering from stress and you need some help, you can find advice and contacts here.
Stress has been in our DNA for hundreds of thousands of years. We are meant to feel stress in our bodies, but in the modern world most of us are overexposed to stress. The fight or flight response is a natural performance enhancer in short bursts. But prolonged exposure to stress can increase the adverse effects it has on your health and mental wellbeing. If you are feeling stress, there are several protocols you can put in place to help manage that stress. Learning to identify stressors and then manage the hormonal response can be beneficial to your health. Exercising and following a good nutritional plan can help you both physically and mentally to cope with stress. If you feel you are experiencing too much stress, you can look towards professional help and medication.