As we near the end of the year, everything – from work to your social life – tends to kick up a notch. So, it’s fair enough if your stress levels do too.
Stress is a normal response when we feel under threat, in fact normal levels of stress are healthy. It’s when you’re too stressed that we can jeopardise our health.
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Stress is good and bad
Robert Sapolsky, neuroendocrinologist and professor at Stanford University, who has studied stress for more than three decades, explains it best: “For a normal mammal, stress is about three minutes of terror.” In life-threatening situations, stress can save our lives by helping us physically escape danger, thanks to the flight-or-fight response, but in the modern world where stress is triggered more frequently, it can eventually result in disease.
What’s happening inside your body
The stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin rev up your heartbeat and send blood rushing to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart and other important organs. But when these hormones remain on high due to persistent low-level stress, they affect most areas of the body.
Stress can cause high blood pressure, increasing the risk of stroke disease.
Finding the off switch
Our central nervous system is responsible for the flight-or-fight response. It sends messages to the adrenal glands to start releasing stress hormones, our lungs start working hard to get oxygen into our body and our blood pressure and blood sugar levels increase. Bodily processes like ovulation, digestion and tissue repair are not needed for us to flee from danger so they are turned off to allow the body to concentrate on saving us. When the stressful situation is over, the system returns to normal. The problem is that our busy lives have meant that we’ve lost the off switch and the stress response has become more dangerous than the stressor itself. Finding that regular switch-off time is one of the most critical things we can do for our health.
Are you too stressed?
Headaches, sore muscles and difficulty sleeping are all tell-tale signs of chronic stress – but there are other less obvious clues to look out for.
- You’re not getting along
If you’re getting stuck into your partner more than usual and it’s out of character for you, then stress could be to blame. Researchers have found that the more stressed you are, the more reactive you’re likely to be – even to minor irritations.
- Low immunity
Research shows that when you’re stressed your immunity takes a hit, so you’re more likely to succumb to whatever virus is making its way through your home or office. In one study, stressed people were twice as likely to get sick after being exposed to the common cold virus and produced more of the inflammation-inducing compounds that lead to congestion and other typical cold and flu symptoms.
- You are always tired
When you’re stressed, your nervous system is on high alert and more stress hormones than usual are being released into your bloodstream. All those extra stress hormones speed up your heart rate and breathing, which use up loads of energy and can leave you feeling exhausted.
- It causes inflammation
Studies have shown that chronic stress triggers inflammation in the body, which is thought to be the cause of many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders like multiple sclerosis. An increase in cytokines, a type of immune cell that is part of the body’s defence system when you have an infection, seems to be the culprit. People with autoimmune conditions, where the immune system attacks the body itself, tend to have higher levels of these cytokines. The good news is that stress-management techniques such as meditation have been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect, lowering cytokines in the body.
- Poor digestion
Nerve endings and immune cells in the digestive tract are affected by stress hormones so stress can cause acid reflux as well as exacerbate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. This is the reason we get butterflies in the stomach when we’re stressed.
- Lowered immunity
In life-threatening situations, stress actually stimulates the immune system, which can help you avoid infections and heal wounds. But when stress persists, it weakens your immune system and reduces your body’s response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to infections and often take longer to recover from illness or injury.
- Disrupted cycle
Activation of the stress response means bodily processes that aren’t needed to help you run fast are turned down until the danger passes. This includes ovulation. So, if stress is ongoing, it’s not uncommon to experience lighter, non-existent or painful periods.