Allerton Health Centre

Health & Wellbeing

Coping with stress

A certain amount of stress in one's life is natural in the demanding society we live in, and our quest to 'do it all' and 'have it all'.  A person may experience stress in response to a wide range of physical and emotional stimuli. Many of life’s demands can cause stress, especially work, relationships and money problems, and when you feel stressed, it can affect everything you do.

Everyone has to face their own challenges, and often the pressure of these challenges are too much for a person to handle. Some experience more stress than others, but either way it is a feeling none of us are comfortable with. Stress can affect how you feel, how you think, how you behave and how your body works.

The Physical Effects

Stress can trigger the body’s response to perceived threat or danger, the ‘Fight-or-Flight’ response. When faced with a stressful situation, the body’s natural response is to increase the production of certain hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. The release of these hormones leads to an increase in the body's heart rate, blood pressure and metabolism and a decrease in reproduction, tissue repair and digestion, hence the sensation of 'butterflies in the stomach', all of which gives the body a burst of energy and strength. When the perceived threat is gone, systems are designed to return to normal function via the ‘relaxation response’.
When faced with chronic stress and an overactivated nervous system, people begin to see physical symptoms. The first symptoms are relatively mild, like chronic headaches and increased susceptibility to colds. But if feelings of stress become persistent they can cause more long term health problems.

The link between stress and heart disease is well-established.1 If stress is intense, and stress hormones are not ‘used up’ by normal physical activity, our raised heart rate and high blood pressure put tension on arteries and cause damage to them. As the body heals this damage, artery walls scar and thicken, which can reduce the supply of blood and oxygen to the heart. Stress has also been found to damage the immune system by reducing the levels of lymphocytes which attack bacteria, which explains why we catch more colds when we are stressed.2

We should do whatever we can to help remove the stresses in our lives. Not only because of the physical ramifications discussed earlier, but also the psychological effects.

We all know that the more a person falls into worry and doubt, the more they open themselves up to negativity in their lives. It becomes a viscious circle; the more we worry, the more we get worked up and upset, we become even more stressed and the circle continues, with it becoming harder to escape. Stress pounds away at your mental health, leaving you unable to cope with even the smallest of everyday pressures. Stress suffered in the long-term can hence cause mental health problems like anxiety, eating disorders, depression and obsessive compulsive disorders.

A comprehensive list, provided by the International Stress Management Association UK, sumarises stress influenced conditions as following3

  • Psychological signs
  • Inability to concentrate or make simple decisions
  • Memory lapses
  • Becoming rather vague
  • Easily distracted
  • Less intuitive & creative
  • Worrying
  • Negative thinking
  • Depression & anxiety

Emotional signs

  • Tearful
  • Irritable
  • Mood swings
  • Extra sensitive to criticism
  • Defensive
  • Feeling out of control
  • Lack of motivation
  • Angry
  • Frustrated
  • Lack of confidence
  • Lack of self-esteem

Physical signs

  • Aches/pains & muscle tension/grinding teeth
  • Frequent colds/infections
  • Allergies/rashes/skin irritations
  • Constipation/diarrhoea/IBS
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Indigestion/heartburn/ulcers
  • Hyperventilating/lump in the throat/pins & needles
  • Dizziness/palpitations
  • Panic attacks/nausea
  • Physical tiredness
  • Menstrual changes/loss of libido/sexual problems
  • Heart problems/high blood pressure

Behavioural signs

  • No time for relaxation or pleasurable activities
  • Prone to accidents, forgetfulness
  • Increased reliance on alcohol, smoking, caffeine, recreational or illegal drugs
  • Becoming a workaholic
  • Poor time management and/or poor standards of work
  • Absenteeism
  • Self neglect/change in appearance
  • Social withdrawal
  • Relationship problems
  • Insomnia or waking tired
  • Reckless
  • Aggressive/anger outbursts
  • Nervous

How to Help

Being able to cope with stress and learning techniques to help yourself deal with stress is an important aspect of keeping healthy.

Diet can play an important role in stress. In response to stress some people develop different eating habits such as craving sweets, whilst others loose their appetite. It is important to remember to eat small amounts of food throughout the day so that your blood sugars remain stable.

The negative effects of the rise in cortisol and adrenaline can also be regulated by including healthy fats such as those found in salmon, avocado, olive oil etc. Sometimes our bodies work so hard during a period of stress that our immune system is compromised and our body’s need for vitamins and minerals in increased. Therefore taking a good multivitamin and mineral supplement can be helpful. 4

Relaxation techniques can help people, especially those suffering from anxiety symptoms. Relaxation can help to relieve the symptoms of stress. It can help you calm down and take a step back from a stressful situation. For some people relaxation can be nothing more than a hot shower after a hard day at work, washing the stresses away. Some people find therapies like massage or acupuncture helpful. For others it needs to be an ‘active’ activity where the body is require to 'move', which circulates our energy and helps clear the mind. Examples would be an exercise class or a walk around the block. For some this may be too energetic, especially if the body is feeling depleted, so alternatives like 'active relaxation' may be better. This consists of lying down and tensing then relaxing all the muscles in the body one after another. It can be surprisingly helpful in inducing a relaxed state.

There are also the 'passive relaxation' techniques which can be very useful such as meditation or controlled breathing. Controlled breathing can be done sitting or lying down in a comfortable position; one breathes in slowly, without forcing, through the nose for a count of 4, then breathes out through the mouth even slower to a count of 6 if this can be managed. Practise this relaxed breathing for three to five minutes, two to three times a day, or whenever you feel the need to calm down.

Don't worry if you find it difficult to maintain these relaxation techniques at first. It's a skill that needs to be learned and it will come with practice. You can visit here for more ideas on relaxation techniques.

Sometimes stress becomes so great that people need the help of professionals. It is important to take stress seriously. Speak to your GP about how you feel, particularly if it is affecting your daily life. Speaking to someone about your feelings may help you recognise what is causing your stress, which will help determine a solution. Whatever your situation, stress need not damage your health. If you feel that you need to talk to your doctor or health care professional it is important to do so right away. There are many methods of help available.

Some people are more susceptible to stress than others so what works for one person may not help another. Experiment with different methods and find out what works best for you. Your body will thank you for it!

Article Info

  • Brief:

    The physical and emotional effects of stress and ways to help.

  • Published on: 07th Jul 2011
  • Written by: Allerton Health Centre