Everyone feels stressed at one time or another. Stress can be caused by work, relationships, illness, money worries, or any number of other triggers. Stress is very personal, and what stresses you out might not affect someone else. Some people tend to feel stress more acutely than others, and a lot of us feel like we are under at least some stress all the time.
Stress often seems like a mental health problem, leading to anxiety or depression if allowed to build up with no respite. However, stress can also wreak havoc on your physical health too. These problems can be a direct result of prolonged stress or caused by how you try to deal with your stress e.g. overeating, drinking, or smoking – so-called negative coping patterns. Organs and systems affect by stress include:
Your heart – stress causes your heart rate to speed up. You may even feel your heart pounding in your chest. Heart attacks during periods of intense stress are not uncommon. Stress can also result in an noticeably irregular heartbeat, called arrhythmia.
Your lungs – as your heart rate increases when you are stressed, so too does your breathing rate. If you breathe very fast and shallow, you risk hyperventilating and could also trigger a panic attack. Many people smoke when they are stressed which compounds the negative effect of stress on the lungs.
Your digestive system – stress really does a number on your digestive system. It puts your stomach in a state of agitation, forcing it to empty in a hurry. This could lead to a host of intestinal problems including indigestions, acid reflux, constipation, nausea, and diarrhoea. While none of these things are life-threatening, they will increase your levels of stress and could develop into ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. Digestive problems are often compounded by drinking too much alcohol and coffee, two common but negative stress coping patterns.
Your immune system – prolonged and excessive stress can stop your immune system working properly, leading to more frequent illnesses, another form of stress. Stress challenges your immune system, and it responds by trying to repel any unwanted invaders. However, if you are always stressed, your immune system is constantly working overtime, and eventually stops working as it should.
Your reproductive system – stress effects men and women in much the same way, and that includes reproductive health. Stress causes hormonal imbalances which can affect fertility and virility. This is why some couples struggle for years to conceive, only to fall pregnant during a relaxing holiday.
Your weight – a lot of people turn to food during times of stress. Food increases production of the feel-good hormones and who doesn’t need some of that during times of stress? Unfortunately, stress foods are rarely healthy, and are usually laden with sugar or salt, and packed with calories. Cortisol, the stress hormone, makes fat burning much harder which means overeating in times of stress is a common cause of weight gain.
Your head – stress is a common trigger for headaches, and spending more time hunched over your computer trying to reach deadlines or hit sales targets will not help. Women are twice as likely to have stress-related headaches, also known as tension headaches, but both sexes are more prone to headaches and migraines in stressful situations.
Diseases linked to stress
Many diseases and illnesses are directly linked to stress. Stress causes a cascade of reactions within your body, changing your internal chemistry and status. Occasional bouts of stress are not really a problem, and stress is less impactful if you adopt effective and healthy coping strategies. However, prolonged stress without a relief is linked to:
- Lung disease
- Liver disease
- Heart disease
- Heart attacks
- Accelerated aging
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Depression and anxiety
While stress is often unavoidable, there are several stress-relieving strategies that can help reduce its impact on your health. Avoiding stress should always be your first priority but, if that’s not possible, use these stress relieving tips:
1. Take a break
Just a few minutes away from a stress trigger can be all you need to get some perspective and get a grip on how you are feeling. Try not to take your work home with you, eat your lunch at your desk, or talk about work when you are away from the office. Time off from stress is vital for recharging your batteries and resetting your mind.
A workout allows you to exercise away tension, frustrations, and even anger. Stress creates a build-up of energy in your body, and exercise, like a safety valve, allows you to let it all out. Exercise also increases your production of feel-good hormones and that will enhance your mood and self-esteem.
3. Get a massage
Massage is a great way to de-stress, relax, and recharge. It’s very self-indulgent and doing something that is entirely for you will improve your mood. Massage rebalances your nervous system and provides a great escape from the demands and stresses of the day.
If going to a masseuse is out of the question, consider using an electronic massage device such as a massage pillow or U-shaped neck massager. Portable and easy to use, as well as available 24/7, a massage device means you can de-stress anywhere, and at any time – even at the office.
4. Talk it out
The things that stress us out often seem worse when they are allowed to rattle and echo around inside our heads. Small molehills can turn into huge mountains if you keep them to yourself. Talking about the things that are causing you stress often robs them of their power. In fact, what seemed like serious problems often become insignificant when spoken aloud. Meet a trusted friend somewhere quiet and tell them what’s on your mind. You may find that your stresses vanish just by talking about them.
5. Get some distraction
The more you focus on a source of stress, the bigger that stress tends to become. Look for ways to fix your mind on something else – seek out some distractions. Instead of sitting in the dark dwelling on whatever it is that’s bothering you, do something else. Listen to some music or read a book, go for a walk, make a healthy meal, watch a film, play some sport or even a video game. Anything is better than allowing your mind to settle on your source of stress.
It almost doesn’t matter what you do so long as it a) diverts your mind from the issue in hand, and b) is NOT unhealthy. This is not the time to go on a beer-fuelled bender or eat piles of junk food.
Stress IS a serious health risk, but it’s also one you can overcome. It’s important to learn how to avoid stressful situations and then cope with stress when avoidance is impossible. Stress is often a learned response, so you’ll need to reprogram your response to stressful situations. But, with practice, and maybe some professional guidance, you do not have to be a victim of stress.