Stress, in many ways, is our friend. It’s part of our programming, that automatic fight or flight response that helps us dash for cover when we spot danger, or knuckle down to get jobs done. It’s all thanks to that surge of hormones – including adrenaline and cortisol – our bodies produce when the brain registers it’s time for action.
But there are also times when stress is bad. When we’re screeching, jaw clenched, that somebody is really “stressing us out”, for instance, or yelling at everybody to get the heck out of the kitchen as we’re juggling what feels like five billion trays in the oven and, any minute now – never mind the gravy – we’re going to boil over.
That’s stress when it’s being a bit of a pain in the proverbial, but that’s still very normal, and actually, quite helpful for getting stuff done. Once that irksome person’s backed off, or the grub’s on the table, your arteries are no longer bulging.
Professor Ewan Gillon is Clinical Director of First Psychology Scotland, which has six centres across Scotland including Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and the Borders. He says: “We all have our own unique ‘stress personality’ comprising our personal triggers for stress as well as the things we often do to deal with it. Indeed, how we manage stress can often add to it, with common strategies such as avoidance and over-stimulation frequently making things worse than better.”
So when is stress a health concern?
We’ve all seen the headlines; it’s the modern epidemic, costing UK industries billions. Some 91million working days are lost annually to mental ill-health, and half of these are related to stress and anxiety.
Work isn’t the only factor; events and circumstances in somebody’s personal life, and other health conditions, for example, can also contribute.
And while certain things – like house moves, redundancy and exams – are recognised as being ‘stressful’, there’s no way of measuring how much stress they’ll cause and how this might affect one person from the next.
Stress is really a problem when it becomes a constant. When those adrenaline and cortisol surges are happening so frequently, and calm is not being adequately restored between ‘triggers’, that you eventually end up being in a constant fight-or-flight state.
As a result, it can seem like your “stressed out” threshold gets lower and lower, and little demands become increasingly challenging.
It can manifest physically too, suppressing the immune system and wreaking havoc with your sleep and digestive system. Research suggests it can even affect memory function, and make us more sensitive to physical pain.
“Stress affects everyone differently, and what’s stressful for one person may not be for another,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind. “However, there are some common symptoms to look out for.”
MOOD AND CHARACTER CHANGES
When struggling with stress, it’s usual to feel you’ve lost your patience, and find yourself being irritable and snappy. “Long-term stress can increase irritability, aggression and anxiety,” says Mamo. “It can lead to depression, poor concentration, and someone experiencing stress at work, for example, may struggle with seemingly simple tasks, including motivation, punctuality and decision-making. They may behave differently – for example, a colleague who’s normally outgoing and chatty might become quiet and withdrawn.”
Perhaps the clearest point that you’ve reached your stress tipping point is that desperate anxiety where you simply can’t handle any more on your plate. You feel at bursting point, and any additional demands sent your way – no matter how small they seem to others – are going to tip you over the edge or make you explode. Things you’d normally be able to handle now make you teary and afraid that you can’t cope.
We’re programmed to worry – it keeps us safe and functioning. But when you’re suffering with stress, it’s not unusual to find you’re suddenly worrying much more about everything, and possibly having more negative thoughts than usual about things that may happen in the future, which may be a symptom of anxiety too.
Sometimes, though we may not even be aware we’re doing it at first, stress can make us change our behaviours. This might be disengaging with hobbies, avoiding socialising, losing interest in things and neglecting physical appearance. Sometimes people might start drinking more, using drugs or binge-eating, for example, too.
“Stress makes it incredibly difficult to ‘switch off’ our brains, hence it is difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep,” says Mel Wakeman from Birmingham City University’s Faculty of Health. “Our normal sleep cycle gets disrupted, so we do not enter the essential deep phases of sleep. It’s a vicious cycle, as less sleep means we are less able to cope with everyday stresses.”
Poor sleep inevitably leads to feeling drained the next day, but stress hormones can add to daytime fatigue too. “When we’re stressed, our body is wired and this means our metabolism’s running at a faster rate. This will have the effect of draining our energy stores, hence we feel tired,” adds Wakeman.
“Sometimes adrenalin can trigger our heart to beat very fast. It can be alarming and make you feel quite odd, with pounding chest, heavy legs and light-headed,” says Wakeman. Palpitations – being suddenly more aware of your heartbeat or feeling your heart’s racing, pounding or fluttering in your chest and throat – can be very frightening, but it’s a common symptom in stress and anxiety and, most of the time, harmless. If you’re concerned, get it checked with your GP.
Feeling light-headed and dizzy can happen alongside palpitations, possibly as a symptom of a panic or anxiety attack. It can also happen on its own. “Vasovagal syncope is most commonly associated with emotional stress and the impact it has on the nervous system,” notes Nuffield Health physiologist Matthew Horsley. “Triggers include perceived stimuli, like the sight of blood for instance, which cause an increase in parasympathetic drive and subsequent drops in blood pressure and/or heart rate, thereby momentarily disrupting blood supply to the brain.”
WEIGHT LOSS OR GAIN
Some people gain, while others lose weight when they’re stressed. This may be linked with a loss of appetite, or comfort eating, and may also be due to metabolic factors associated with stress-induced hormonal changes.
“Stress can also increase muscle tension, most commonly experienced via contraction of muscles in the upper limbs, neck and around the skull,” says Horsley. This can contribute to an increase in general aches and pains, as well as feeling ‘hunched’ and tight.
Muscle tension is also a factor in headaches, as are the increased levels of stress hormones. “These affect brain chemistry and lead to less control over blood vessel regulation,” says Horsley. “This leads to inflammation and the associated pain of headaches, alongside a reduced capacity to process sensory information, such as sound and light.”
BEING RUN DOWN, OR EXISTING HEALTH CONDITIONS WORSEN
“Prolonged stress is linked with higher levels of cortisol and we know this chemical reduces the activity of our immune system, making it more likely we pick up bugs,” says Wakeman. You may find you take longer to shake off colds and infections, and they wipe you out more. Plus, stress can worsen symptoms, or ‘trigger’ episodes of pre-existing health conditions, particularly things like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), psoriasis, or autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
FIVE SIMPLE STRESS-BUSTERS
Stress becomes a problem when it accumulates over time, but there is a lot we can do to help prevent and manage that:
RECOGNISE YOU’RE STRESSED – and also that you play a key role in addressing it. It won’t magically disappear but sometimes, a few small tweaks to your lifestyle and how you approach stress can make the world of difference. Make wellbeing a priority.
EAT WELL – to function well, physically and mentally, we need to support our bodies with a balanced, nutritious diet. Fuelling yourself well will go a long way to supporting other efforts to de-stress.
REST UP – we all need to recharge, so don’t feel guilty about saying no to things you don’t have the energy for. If you’re struggling to sleep, do yourself a favour and switch off the TV/laptop/smartphone at least 45 minutes before bed. Slow, deep breathing will help quiet and calm a worried mind.
SPEAK UP – if your workload or circumstances at work are contributing to your stress, speaking with your line manager, or Employee Assistance Programme, could really help. Or, speaking to your GP could be helpful. They may be able to suggest useful therapies, including CBT and counselling. Sometimes, just having your stress acknowledged can be a useful turning point and weight lifted.