How stress affects our health

If you thought stress was just a feeling, an emotion to describe your state of mind - you may be interested to hear that it can actually be measured objectively. Signs include changes in your brain activity, hormone regulation and your immune system.

These physical signs of stress may be present with or without the emotional symptoms of stress, meaning not everyone who is suffering from the physical symptoms will 'feel stressed.' Every individual's perception and interpretation of stress is different and can often be based on early life experience.  Whether someone's experience is different to yours, it's still very much real and must be respected as so.

Why is this important? It is essential that we start to recognise and understand the effects of stress on our health, well-being, mental state and physical state. It is widely recognised that it contributes largely to many health conditions and illnesses and current lifestyles and demands mean its affecting more of us than ever.

"Its not stress that is killing us. It's our reaction to it." Hans Selye

There are two types of stress, acute and chronic. The first being a direct response to an immediate situation - (which is a necessary survival skill) - and chronic stress, an ongoing state in which the body adapts by increasing  adrenaline and cortisol production and altering hormonal regulation.

Adrenaline increases heart rate, blood pressure and energy levels, while cortisol increases sugars in the bloodstream, improves the body's ability to convert these sugars and improves the body's capacity to repair tissue. Well that all sounds OK I hear you say.... Cortisol also diverts energy from body systems that are not immediately required for survival such as digestion, immune system, reproductive system and growth processes. It also affects the area of the brain that controls fear, mood and motivation.

Usually the body and brain regulate their response to stress automatically. Eg, when the immediate threat has gone the hormonal changes regulate and the body's systems return to normal function. So our acute stress reaction isn't too concerning. But when we feel under constant levels of stress and the body is over stimulated by this constant production of chemicals and hormones, eventually our systems start to be affected long-term, reducing their function and effectiveness and leading to chronic health problems.

Imagine for a moment a 'stressed person' - it's likely that a certain image comes to mind - tense, tight shoulders, frowning expression, clenched jaw or fists, agitated demeanour... That's because the Ventral Vagus Nerve  of our autonomic nervous system goes into 'fight or flight' mode, winding up the muscles, producing adrenaline, essentially getting us ready to run or fight for our lives. In an immediate situation of danger this is of course helpful and a vital survival skill. But when these changes occur repeatedly due to recurring situations over a prolonged period of time these chemical changes are no longer helpful, and can in fact negatively affect other body systems.

The other form of stress brought on by dysfunction of the Dorsal Vagus Nerve can often be attributed to symptoms such as depression, poor sleep and poor digestion. You may present with tension in the forehead, diaphragm, perineum and foot arches. Again, these symptoms can premeditate other health problems.

A small number of examples of health conditions regularly seen in a physio clinic that are affected by stress include, musculoskeletal pain, increased incidence of injury, headaches, poor bowel health, urinary incontinence, obesity, unwanted weight loss, reduced capacity to work, recurrent colds and flu, reduced capacity to exercise, high blood pressure... the list could go on.

So what can you do about it? There are a number of recommended ways to address stress management, and if you are really struggling to get on top of your symptoms you could benefit from seeing a specialist professional to guide you. However some simple lifestyle changes you can make include:

  • Regular exercise (at a level that suits you)

  • Breathing exercises

  • Meditation or mindfulness practice

  • Following a nutritional, healthy diet

  • Talking (whether to family, friends or a professional) and regular social interaction

It's impossible to deny the effects of stress and the epidemic we find ourselves in with today's busy lifestyles and 'access all areas' social media. If we consider the "Lifestyle Medicine' approach to healthcare we can find other ways to approach stress management and take some control of our own routines, make long-term positive changes and reduce the burden on our struggling healthcare system, and improve our own health along the way.

Emma Bradley