Stress is an inevitable part of all aspects of our modern life. From our daily commute, our jobs, our personal relationships – even organising a relaxing holiday is stressful! Unfortunately, stress exerts very real physical effects on our body and usually in negative ways.
Stress comes in two forms; the acute response that makes our heart race and our minds more alert and chronic stress at a lower level over a longer period that wears us down. Both involve the physiological reaction of releasing stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) and activating the autonomic nervous system. The effects of stress are the consequence of these biological processes. However, the effects can be different in each type of stress. For example, for a man, acute stress results in increased sexual arousal but in chronic stress it is reduced arousal.
Stress has been implicated in many physical effects on the body affecting virtually every system. Lets take a closer look at some of these systems and symptoms:
- Nervous: headaches, insomnia, depression, tinnitus, sweating
- Gastrointestinal: Reflux, gastritis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Reproductive: erection difficulties, menstrual irregularities, libido changes
- Muscular: aches, pains, tightness
- Immune: increased infections (particularly upper respiratory viruses)
- Cardiovascular: increased Blood Pressure
The cardiovascular system is the one people most think of as being affected by stress. While we certainly feel out heart beat quicker in the short- term, there is little direct evidence that it causes long-term cardiovascular events like heart attacks except in the case of young men. Studies appear to reassuringly show that it is a common misperception that having a Type A personality, stressful job or anxious disposition leads to cardiovascular events. However, if the resulting coping mechanisms are increased use of smoking, alcohol, drugs and a poor diet, then it does lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular events. Interestingly, studies also show that being depressed or socially isolated and the resulting chronic stress from it, is linked to increased cardiovascular events.
The symptoms of stress may also simply be more or entirely psychological, such as being agitated, overwhelmed, having low self-esteem and being unable to relax or ‘switch off.’
So how are we to cope with this inescapable fact of life? Studies of twins suggest that the ability to cope with stress is not under genetic control but rather environmental, which is good news as it means we have control. The ability to cope with stress is considered as a product of two key factors: the person’s perception of the stressor and the person’s general health.
Therefore, in relation to perception, the key is psychological adaptation and employing psychological techniques to be able to respond to the stressor more favourably. ‘Mindfulness’, which is gaining popularity, and other forms of meditation have been proven to reduce the psychological effects of anxiety and low mood that result from stress, but not the physical symptoms. Hence, it is also important to deal with the second aspect and keep in good general health. This is, of course, a long topic in its own right, the principles of moderate levels of exercise and a balanced diet, together with regular visits to a Doctor to manage or review existing medical conditions are paramount.
Wishing you all the best in coping with all the potential stress in the year ahead!