Stress. I would bet that most, if not all of us have struggled with stress at some point in our lives.
Stress isn’t always a bad thing. In small doses stress can improve our performance under pressure and can increase our motivation to succeed.
The hormones involved in the ‘stress response’ are the same ones that can help protect us in time of danger when we feel our brains shift rapidly into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This response is a protective factor, designed to keep us safe and respond quickly to remove ourselves from life threatening situations. We become aware of our heart rate quickening, our senses heightening and can feel the beads of sweat start to appear on our brow.
These hormonal changes can work to our advantage if we are trying to run away from danger, slamming the brakes on to avoid a car crash, spurring us on to win the race in sport or trying to deliver a perfect presentation.
However, the exact same hormone cascade if allowed to carry on for any significant length of time can have a significant negative impact on our physical and mental health. At this point, the stress response stops being helpful and begins to have potential negative effects on your health, mood and relationships.
I see many patients presenting with symptoms of stress at my practice.
Situations, pressure or events that cause stress are known as stressors. A stressor can be anything that puts you under increased pressure.
Examples of external stressors (things that happen outwith your own body) include major life changes, work or school, relationship difficulties or breakdown, financial problems, over committing or being too busy, poor work life balance, family problems being a carer for someone, self neglect and grief.
Examples of internal stressors (pressure that comes form within your self) include negative thinking, inability to accept uncertainty, unrealistic expectations of ones self ie perfectionism and reluctance or inability to ask for or accept help.
Common effects of stress
Research suggests that chronic stress is associated with, among other things, high blood pressure, raised blood sugar, headaches, heartburn, anxiety, depression, formation of artery clogging deposits and addiction.
There is also building evidence to support an increase in risk of obesity both directly through resulting in increased intake of calories and indirectly through reduction of good quality sleep and activity levels.
So, how does this happen?
When a stressful situation arises a part of your brain called the hypothalamus is activated and the stress response is underway.
The hypothalamus tells the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones increase your heart rate, pumping the blood to your muscles where it is needed most. Your breathing rate increase and many people start to sweat.
When the stressor has gone, the hypothalamus should send signals to the adrenal glands to return the cortisol and adrenaline levels to normal. However, if the stressor doesn’t go away or if the brain fails to respond normally, the adrenaline and cortisol levels will remain high, and the sensation of heart racing, rapid breathing and sweating will continue. This prolonged increase in heart rate can lead to high blood pressure.
Other complications of this prolonged stress response include increase in blood sugar. This happens as your liver starts to produce more sugar to feed the muscles being supplied by your increased heart rate. In time this constant higher level of blood sugar can lead to Type 2 Diabetes.
The rush of hormones can also cause higher levels of stomach acid and increased symptoms of acid reflux. The way your body moves food through your digestive system can also be influenced by these hormone changes and cause both diarrhoea and constipation (increase symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome) as well as nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
Muscular tension during times of stress can lead to neck, back and shoulder pain and an increase in headaches. Often people become less active due to their pain which leads to worsening of stress and mood disorders.
I often see people with reduce libido during times of stress. This is due to a mix of lowering of mood, reduction in physical activity and hormonal changes including reduced testosterone in men and disruption of the normal menstrual cycle in women.
Sleep disruption is also a common complaint among those suffering from stress. This is again due to the disruption on cortisol levels. We rely on a pattern of peaks and troughs on cortisol levels throughout the day (know as Circadian Rhythm) to help signal to our bodies when its tie to wake and time to sleep. The increase in cortisol levels in those who are chronically stressed leads to a disruption in this normal rhythm. Here the brain does not receive the right signals for sleep and all too often insomnia ensues. This lack of sleep leads to further stress and it’s easy to see how people get stuck in a viscous cycle of stress and sleep deprivation
Common emotional symptoms include general unhappiness, depression, anxiety, agitation, irritability, anger, irrational behaviour, feeling overwhelmed, loss of confidence, loneliness, isolation and sense of hopelessness.
Take time over the next few days to see if you recognize symptoms of stress and stressors in your life. Part 2 of this post will focus on what action you can take.