In a fast-moving and connected world, stress becomes a constant companion, weaving its way through all areas of life as people manage the demands of work, relationships, finances, and personal aspirations. It’s helpful to recognise the profound relationship between stress and the human body, and while individual responses to stress vary, understanding the physiological effects of stress is crucial to leading a healthy, balanced life.
What is Stress?
Stress is a natural and widespread physical response to challenging or unfamiliar situations, encompassing both mental and physical dimensions. This intricate phenomenon can be triggered by various life experiences, with stressors originating externally, such as environmental, psychological, or social situations, or internally, as seen in cases of illness. The body’s response to stress often involves the initiation of the ‘fight or flight’ reaction, a complex interplay between the neurologic and endocrine systems.
Stress for many, becomes a constant state of being. At the forefront of this physiological response is cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone. Many people, such as professionals in high pressure work-environments, or project teams working to a deadline, can thrive on the feeling of stress (Reiner et al, 2019). Yet cortisol also plays a crucial role in regulating key bodily functions, including metabolism, immune response, and blood pressure.
Impact and symptoms of Stress
Symptoms of stress can manifest in physical symptoms like headaches, loss of appetite, increased blood pressure, chest pain, sexual dysfunction, and sleep disturbances. Moreover, the challenge arises when stress transitions beyond immediate discomfort, to a chronic condition, of sustained elevated levels of cortisol promoting an array of associated health issues. Research suggests links between stress and the development or exacerbation of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, delayed healing, irritable bowel syndrome, as well as mental health disorders like depression and anxiety (Gouin and Kiecolt-Glaser, 2011).
Continuous exposure to stress without relief can result in Chronic Stress which has been linked with atrophy of brain mass (Sarahanian et al., 2014) impacting cognition and memory (Lupien et al., 2009).
The impact of stress on human physiology is multifaceted, influencing various aspects of one’s life through:
- Professional Stress: The competitive landscape of the professional world introduces stressors related to deadlines, responsibilities, and the pursuit of career advancement. Balancing the demands of work with personal well-being becomes a delicate and ongoing task.
- Family and Relationship Pressures: Maintaining healthy relationships and meeting family responsibilities is both rewarding and demanding. Negotiating the intricacies of personal connections adds an additional layer to the stress equation, requiring a nurturing approach.
- Mental Health Challenges: As responsibilities mount, so does the potential for mental health challenges. Stress acts as a known contributor to conditions like anxiety and depression, which may either surface or intensify with changing circumstances.
Strategies for Stress Reduction
- Mindfulness and Meditation: Incorporating mindfulness practices into daily routines offers a powerful tool for stress reduction. Techniques like meditation and mindful breathing can provide a mental sanctuary amidst life’s chaos.
- Regular Exercise: Engaging in consistent physical activity is a proven method for managing stress. Whether it’s a brisk walk, yoga, or strength training, exercise releases endorphins, fostering a sense of well-being.
- Nutrition for Resilience: A balanced diet is instrumental in managing stress. Steering clear of excessive caffeine and sugar while focusing on nutrient-rich foods supports the body’s ability to cope with stress.
- Prioritising Quality Sleep: Establishing a healthy sleep routine is paramount. Quality sleep not only rejuvenates the body but also fortifies mental resilience, enabling individuals to face challenges with a clear mind.
- Social Connections: Cultivating and maintaining a robust social network provides a valuable support system. Sharing experiences, seeking advice, and connecting with friends and family contribute to emotional well-being.
- Realistic Goal Setting: Setting realistic and achievable goals is a crucial aspect of stress management. Balancing professional and personal aspirations with a pragmatic mindset helps prevent unnecessary stress.
When to speak to a GP about Stress?
Recognising when to seek help from a General Practitioner (GP) for stress is vital for maintaining well-being. If you experience persistent physical symptoms like headaches, digestive issues, or sleep disturbances, it’s wise to consult a GP as these may indicate stress impacting your health. Emotional well-being concerns, such as persistent anxiety or irritability affecting daily life, warrant professional discussion.
If stress is influencing relationships or work performance, seeking assistance is crucial to reduce the chance of further challenges. Changes in sleep patterns or unhealthy coping mechanisms, like excessive alcohol use, should prompt a visit to a GP. Chronic fatigue, significant changes in appetite, or recurrent mental health issues necessitate professional evaluation. Additionally, if life transitions, such as job loss or loss of a loved one, amplify stress, consulting with a GP can provide valuable support. GPs not only offer guidance and recommend interventions but also may refer you to specialists if needed. Remember, seeking help for stress is a sign of strength, and early intervention can prevent potential complications.
As you continue to navigate the web of relationships, goals and responsibilities, mastering the art of stress management becomes key to sustained well-being. Recognising the impact of stress on cortisol production empowers individuals to take proactive steps towards a healthier, more balanced life. By incorporating mindful practices, regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and fostering social connections, you can cultivate resilience and face life’s challenges with strength and poise. Always remember to trust your instincts; if stress significantly impacts your well-being and you’re uncertain how to manage it, seeking help is a proactive step. Your GP is here to support you on your journey to better mental health, so don’t hesitate to reach out and take that important step towards a healthier and more balanced life.
AIHW, (2002). Stress and trauma. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 7 July 2022. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/mental-health/stress-and-trauma#What%20is%20stress?
Gouin JP and Kiecolt-Glaser JK (2011) ‘The impact of psychological stress on wound healing: methods and mechanisms- external site opens in new window’, Immunology and allergy clinics of North America, 31(1):81–93.
Lupien SJ, McEwen BS, Gunnar MR, Heim C. Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2009; 10:434-45.
Reiner, S. M., Balkin, R. S., Gotham, K. R., Hunter, Q., Juhnke, G. A., & Davis, R. J. (2019). Assessing Life Balance and Work Addiction in High‐Pressure, High‐Demand Careers. Journal of Counseling and Development, 97(4), 409–416. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcad.12289
Sarahian N, Sahraei H, Zardooz H, Alibeik H, Sadeghi B. Effect of memantine administration within the nucleus accumbens on changes in weight and volume of the brain and adrenal gland during chronic stress in female mice. Modares J Med Sci: Pathobiology. 2014;17:71-82.
Yaribeygi, H., Panahi, Y., Sahraei, H., Johnston, T. P., & Sahebkar, A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI Journal, 16, 1057–1072. https://doi.org/10.17179/excli2017-480