A bit of stress can be beneficial at times…spurring us on to meet a deadline, study for an exam or get a project done. However, extreme or ongoing stress can cause serious health problems.
What is stress exactly?
Anytime you may feel worried, overwhelmed or run-down …. that’s stress!
Stress affects both men and women of different ages and circumstances. With a threat or stress to the body, the hypothalamus in your brain sends a signal to your adrenal glands which release adrenaline and cortisol to increase your heart rate and blood pressure. If it’s a short-term threat, everything goes back to normal quite quickly. However, with long-term stress, your body gets over-exposed to stress hormones, and this is what makes you sick.
Can chronic untreated stress really affect your health?
Stress can have a wide-ranging effect on your body by causing, or aggravating, many different conditions including:
- anxiety (hyperventilation, feeling anxious most of the time, panic attacks)
- tension type headaches (often resulting in a tight band-like feeling across the temples)
- muscle spasm (stress causes muscles to tense up, especially in the head, neck and shoulder area)
- weight gain or obesity (sometimes in association with “comfort eating”, it can increase the risk of diabetes)
- digestive problems (nausea, diarrhoea, cramps, constipation)
- heartburn (often aggravated by eating more and gaining weight, smoking more and consuming more alcohol to try to relax)
- stomach ulcers
- heart problems (an increased heart rate and high levels of stress hormones can cause high blood pressure, putting one at risk of a heart attack or stroke)
- sleep disturbances
- poor concentration and memory
- decreased libido and erectile dysfunction
- stress can have a negative effect on one’s fertility
- a negative impact on one’s immune system
No matter how heavy the stress, there are some steps you can take to minimise its effect on your health:
- try to identify what is causing your stress
- focus on getting regular exercise as this increases your body’s production of endorphins, the “feel good” neurotransmitters in the brain
- try relaxation techniques (yoga, meditation, deep breathing, and massage)
- follow a healthy, balanced diet
- decrease your caffeine intake
- reach out to friends and family for support
- ensure you get enough sleep (aim for 7-8 hours, get into a routine and remove distractions such as the TV and computer from the bedroom)
- try to manage your time better (get up a bit earlier, make a list and work according to priority, ask for help)
- practise walking away and counting to 10 when you feel angry
- make time for hobbies or volunteer work
- seek professional help from your doctor or a psychologist, if you are struggling to cope