Stress is an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand we need some stress in a positive way to enable us to perform at our best. Think actors and sports people or maybe someone about to give a presentation. Without a level of positive stress they will probably not perform at their best.
And yet at the other end of the scale we have the very negative stress where, when we’re being affected on a regular basis with what’s known as ‘chromic stress’, we can’t cope with even the simplest of challenges that life throws at us.
And then to go back to the sports people, exercising – whilst positive in potentially enabling our body to release endorphins to make us feel good as well as the cardio vascular benefits and maybe how we look – there is also the fact the exercising puts stress on our body and joints that is not always healthy or helpful.
Stress affects us physically and emotionally and manifests in many ways.
Stress regularly affects our emotions. Some of the more common emotional manifestations of stress include:
- Anxiety and worry
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Mood swings
When we are under emotional stress we tend to see any issue, however small, as a big problem. Any issue can feel like the straw that broke the camel’s back and cause us to react in perhaps a more dramatic manner to that which it warrants.
The effects of stress on the body are becoming more and more well known. These may include headaches, digestive disorders, weight gain, and even hair loss.
Whilst some people lose their appetite when stressed, many people find that stress for them has the opposite effect and they gain weight.
Overeating can be a problem, which is then exacerbated by cravings for sugar and carbohydrate, said to be caused by stress and as a result of eating poor choices of food, which in turn stimulate cravings.
When we’re stressed our courtisol levels rise as a result of our ‘fight or flight’ mechanism kicking in and that, hormonally, encourages our body to store energy and lay down fat to ‘protect’ us, which of course in the long run is doing the opposite!
Digestive disorders can be a sign of stress. These can range from abdominal pain to chronic diarrhoea and can be a sign of autoimmune disorders like Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s Disease that are made worse by stress (and may also be attributed to stress causing an autoimmune malfunction in the first place).
Hair loss, known as telogen effluvium, may also result from chronic stress. This is usually temporary and resolves once the levels of stress are reduced. For example, this sometimes happens during pregnancy and childbirth and resolves shortly after. In cases of chronic stress with no natural ‘end date’ resolution of the problem needs some ‘work’.
Heart disease is being linked to stress. The heart and overall circulatory system may be affected by stress to the point of exacerbating or even causing disease or dysfunction.
Insomnia is another physical problem that is linked to stress. Some people struggle to get to sleep whilst others can find themselves tossing and turning all night and not reaching the deep sleep required to rejuvenate the body.
Susceptibility to Illness
Being susceptible to illness may be a physical effect of stress. Chronic stress, that continues relentlessly affecting levels of cortisol (aka ‘the stress hormone’) can exhaust the immune system, which can make you more likely to become ill.
I have an underactive thyroid and I can relate a particularly stressful year to the beginning of my symptoms, which it has been said is how autoimmine illnesses can start – with an epigenetic propensity ‘activated’ by a stressful event.
Many examples of back, neck, joint and headache pain can be related to chronic stress.
In my experience some of this comes from ‘tensing’ the body as a result of stress, which can then cause all sorts of other problems. My IBS symptoms years ago were made worse by me tensing my stomach when it was painful, which actually made it feel worse (or so I realised when I actively tried to relax) – a bit of a vicious circle.
Behavioural Manifestations of Stress
Stress is often extremely ‘visible’ through behaviour both in adults and children (hopefully not all of them apply to children!). It may manifest as:
- Excessive anger
- Drinking alcohol
- Lashing out verbally or physically at family members or pets
- Spending inappropriate amounts of money
- Staying up very late at night, sleeping very late in the morning, or otherwise keeping unusual hours
- Withdrawal from activities you once enjoyed
- Withdrawal from family, friends, or any social activity
What to Do to De-Stress
That is a subject for another lengthy blog post! But here are some suggestions to keep you going.
- Try to get enough sleep – things always look worse with less sleep!
- Eat healthily – lots of colourful vegetables and leafy greens and other anti-inflammatory foods like ginger, turmeric and oily fish
- Try meditation – Cathy Brown in her podcast interview with me suggested John Kabat-Zinn
- Or maybe yoga – my Physio for pins and needles in my arms has had me doing ‘the cat‘, which has, along with the other exercises proved effective
- Sing – ok, maybe not for everyone but I took it up again (following school) as an alternative to meditation and yoga, which aren’t really my thing. It works you physically, encourages diaphragmatic breathing (really good for you) and enables mindfulness (you can’t think and worry about other stuff when you’re trying to read music and keep up with everyone, including not singing through the rests!)
- Read – do this for some quiet ‘me’ time when you can get lost in what you’re reading (listening to audio books if you don’t like reading is great too) and read motivational, non fiction books too that may help you to deal with your situation
- Take up a hobby – try knitting, sewing, running, cycling, swimming, anything to give you something to give your energy to that will help to take your mind off your worries
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What do you do to de-stress? Please share your strategies and activities below in the comments.