You’re sitting in traffic, late for an important meeting, watching the minutes tick away. Your hypothalamus, a tiny control tower in your brain, decides to send out the order: Send in the stress hormones!
These stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles ready for action. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly. But when the stress response keeps firing, day after day, it could put your health at serious risk.
Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. Everyone expresses stress from time to time. Anything from everyday responsibilities like work and family to serious life events such as a new diagnosis or the death of a loved one can trigger stress. For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be beneficial to your health. It can help you cope with potentially serious situations. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and ready your muscles to respond.
Yet if your stress response doesn’t stop firing, and these stress levels stay elevated far longer than is necessary for survival, it can take a toll on your health. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and affect your overall well-being. Symptoms of chronic stress include:
Respiratory and cardiovascular systems
Stress hormones can affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the stress response, you breathe faster to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body.
Under stress, your heart also pumps faster. Stress hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to your muscles, so you’ll have more strength to take action. But this also raises your blood pressure.
Under stress, your liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) to give you a boost of energy. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose surge. Chronic stress may increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can also upset your digestive system. You’re more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux when you have an increase in stomach acid.
Stress can also affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhoea or constipation. You might also experience nausea, vomiting, or a stomach-ache.
Your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury when you’re stressed. They tend to release again once you relax, but if you’re constantly under stress, your muscles may not get the chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches. Over time, this can set off an unhealthy cycle as you stop exercising and turn to pain medication for relief.
Stress stimulates the immune system, which can be a plus for immediate situations. This stimulation can help you avoid infections and heal wounds. But over time, stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.
10 ways to combat stress:
Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to combat stress.
It might seem contradictory but putting physical stress on your body through exercise can relieve mental stress.
The benefits are strongest when you exercise regularly. People who exercise regularly are less likely to experience anxiety than those who don’t exercise.
- Consider supplements
Several supplements promote stress and anxiety reduction. You should always speak with your GP before you start taking supplements. Here is a brief overview of some of the most common ones:
Lemon balm: Lemon balm is a member of the mint family that has been studied for its anti-anxiety effects.
Omega-3 fatty acids: One study showed that medical students who received omega-3 supplements experienced a 20% reduction in anxiety sympoms.
Green tea: Green tea contains many polyphenol antioxidants which provide health benefits. It may lower stress and anxiety by increasing serotonin levels.
Certain supplements can reduce stress and anxiety, including ashwagandha, omega-3 fatty acids, green tea and lemon balm.
- Light a candle
Using essential oils or burning a scented candle may help reduce your feelings of stress and anxiety.
Some scents are especially soothing. Here are some of the most calming scents:
Orange or orange blossom
Using scents to treat your mood is called aromatherapy. Several studies show that aromatherapy can decrease anxiety and improve sleep.
- Reduce your caffeine intake
Caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee, tea, chocolate and energy drinks. High doses can increase anxiety.
People have different thresholds for how much caffeine they can tolerate.
If you notice that caffeine makes you jittery or anxious, consider cutting back.
Although many studies show that coffee can be healthy in moderation, it’s not for everyone. In general, five or fewer cups per day is considered a moderate amount.
- Write it down
One way to handle stress is to write things down.
While recording what you’re stressed about is one approach, another is jotting down what you’re grateful for.
Gratitude may help relieve stress and anxiety by focusing your thoughts on what’s positive in your life.
- Chew gum
For a super easy and quick stress reliever, try chewing gum.
One study showed that people who chewed gum had a greater sense of wellbeing and lower stress.
One possible explanation is that chewing gum causes brain waves similar to those of relaxed people. Another is that chewing gum promotes blood flow to your brain.
- Spend time with friends and family
Social support from friends and family can help you get through stressful times.
Being part of a friend network gives you a sense of belonging and self-worth, which can help you in tough times. Although, we are limited to seeing our friends and family at the moment due to lockdown restrictions, why not facetime a friend or have a family zoom call.
It’s hard to feel anxious when you’re laughing. It’s good for your health, and there are a few ways it may help relieve stress:
Relieving your stress response.
Relieving tension by relaxing your muscles.
In the long term, laughter can also help improve your immune system and mood.
- Learn to say no
Not all stressors are within your control, but some are. Take control over the parts of your life that you can change and are causing you stress. One way to do this may be to say “no” more often.
This is especially true if you find yourself taking on more than you can handle, as juggling many responsibilities can leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Being selective about what you take on — and saying no to things that will unnecessarily add to your load — can reduce your stress levels.
- Learn to avoid procrastination
Another way to take control of your stress is to stay on top of your priorities and stop procrastinating.
Procrastination can lead you to act reactively, leaving you scrambling to catch up. This can cause stress, which negatively affects your health and sleep quality.
Get in the habit of making a to-do list organized by priority. Give yourself realistic deadlines and work your way down the list.
Work on the things that need to get done today and give yourself chunks of uninterrupted time, as switching between tasks or multitasking can be stressful itself.
If you are experiencing any unusual or persistent symptoms, you should contact your GP immediately. At Pall Mall, we offer private GP appointments for all ages. Click here for more information or call us on 03300 58 44 55.