It’s a relatively well-known fact that chronic stress is detrimental to your health, but can we pinpoint just why...
Physical Signs of Stress
What a year it’s been. As we’re heading into the colder seasons, speculations are rising over further nationwide lockdowns. Regional lockdowns are being enforced and the question I hear frequently is ‘just how long is it going to be until we’re back to ‘normality’?’.
The consensus indicates that we are all beginning to realise that this may be our new ‘norm’ for the foreseeable. For some, long-term adaptation strategies and acceptance of the current situation has been the focus. For others, a new kind of despair sinks in; an uneasy unknowing which has been further aggravated by a lack of clarity from officials. With each passing month, information published has become increasingly confusing, further fuelling uncertainty for many.
It’s sad to see the polarity of the public in response to the pandemic. At a time where social isolation is prevalent, rates of anxiety, depression and loneliness are at an all-time high. Mental wellbeing and community support should be prioritised.
I think it’s fair to assume that the majority of people have (naturally) experienced stress and anxiety in some shape or form in response to the current climate. A key element of stress management is to first identify the fact that you are in fact experiencing stress. For many, it appears on the surface as though they are managing relatively well day to day. However, emotional stress can manifest in various (and some surprising) physical ways:
Stress is a sympathetic nervous system ‘fight or flight’ response to real or perceived ‘threat’. Stress activates your fight or flight response. This triggers various physical responses such as muscle tension in your abdomen, squeezing your stomach in such a way that it leads to nausea and loss of appetite. The gut is referred to as our second brain as it is connected via our central nervous system through a series of neurotransmitters. This may explain why stress can cause other digestive distress such as diarrhoea/constipation, stomach ache, bloating and increased food sensitivity.
Stress can be experienced subconsciously. Day to day you may feel as though you are responding ‘well’ yet, you’ve developed tension in your jaw and a stiff neck. A tight jaw can be a result of grinding your teeth without noticing. As the jaw, neck and upper-back muscles are interconnected via the sternocleidomastoid muscle, this can cause back pain and discomfort. Headaches can present due to tension caused by physical stress.
Stress can lead to a hormonal response (a rise in cortisol) which leads to an imbalance of hormones. Although cortisol in short infrequent bursts can be beneficial, long-term chronically high levels of cortisol in the blood can lead to hormonal imbalance. This may, in turn cause skin reactions. There has been evidence to suggest a strong link between stress and acne severity. Stress can also exacerbate any current inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and rosacea and has been shown to increase allergic reactions in the skin.
Exacerbates Autoimmune Disorders
As mentioned, chronic stress affects our nervous system health and sends a cocktail of hormones around the body which can lead to a hormonal imbalance. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, dampen and impair the immune system which results in a loss of functionality. One of the main roles of our immune systems is to detect and establish the difference between what’s entering our bodies as a ‘threat’ or ‘non threat’. Autoimmune conditions form as a result of the immune system not being able to distinguish between the two, therefore mistakenly attacking our internal organs/tissues. Stress can therefore heighten autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, MS, Irritable bowel disease, Hashimoto’s disease, and even type 1 diabetes.
Again, our friend cortisol may be to blame. Cortisol can increase fat storage, especially around the stomach, and can cause a change in body composition. Even if weight loss is occurring as a result of nausea, loss of appetite and digestive upset, studies have shown visceral fat is particularly difficult to lose when stress levels are high.
Tips to Help You Cope with Physical Stress
- Firstly, take small steps – stress can feel overwhelming and at times, impossible to manage. Set yourself small tasks to complete throughout your day to bring a sense of structure and control to daily life.
- Prioritise self-care. Anxiety and stress can lead to emotional eating, low motivation to do the things you love, distraction via the form of binge watching TV and recreational activities which can further perpetuate a cycle of negative emotions.
- Reach out to loved ones. Offering emotional support to another can help you cope with your own emotions and help you to feel less isolated and alone.
- Gratitude is like a muscle, the more you work it the stronger it becomes. Journals are a great way to write notes about what you’re grateful for each day. Studies have shown daily gratitude ‘trains’ our brains neurons to create new pathways which, over time become stronger. Gratitude can, therefore, become an increasingly natural practice.
- Physical exercise – Changing your physiology can have a surprisingly significant impact on overall mood and energy levels. Exercise releases ‘happy hormones’ such as serotonin and dopamine. Pick an exercise you enjoy and consider including it in your morning routine to help start your day with a positive mindset.
- Seek the help of a professional – If your anxiety and stress is causing long-term loss of daily functionality, talk therapy services can be an excellent way to seek help in a structured/non-judgemental way.