The effects of stress on your mental and physical health
What is stress?
As the mental health charity Mind explains
“There's no medical definition of stress, and health care professionals often disagree over whether stress is the cause of problems or the result of them.”
Despite it not being medically defined, stress is widely considered to be our reaction to things and situations that make us feel under pressure or like we’re not in control. Stressful situations are often events that upset us emotionally or give us a lot to think about or do. Being stressed is how we feel when we are struggling to deal with something, this can include:
- Traumatic events
- Being overworked or having too much to manage in a short space of time
- Feeling like we have too much responsibility
- Not feeling like we have enough control over something
It is important to acknowledge that we are not all ‘stressed out’ by the same things. Something that one person finds stressful might not be considered so by another. There are also different types of stress, good and bad.
The definition of stress is widely debated as either a cause or result – it has a proven affect on both physical and mental health.
Stress is generally considered a bad thing, but some experts feel that a little stress can have benefits. Good stress can:
- Trigger the ‘flight or fight’ response in us, helping us make important decisions or remove ourselves from dangerous situations
- Motivate us to complete tasks
- Try something new
- Stimulate the production of neurotrophins in your brain. These strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain which help your brain to process data
Mike Fisher, founder of the British Association of Anger Management claims that the good kind of stress, which he terms eustress, can actually help us to achieve more and can benefit our health) Eustress is stress that we feel when we are succeeding at something – like when we compete in sports or present something we’ve worked hard on to our colleagues. It’s when we feel overwhelmed that stress can become too much and begin to have a negative effect on our health and wellbeing.
There are numerous blogs about turning bad stress into good, and most are about our perception of it. If you analysed your feelings towards the stress you are feeling, or the situation that appears to be causing you stress, do you feel excited about doing it? (For example, looking forward to a big event), or do you feel exhausted and drained just thinking about it? That’s the difference between good and bad stress and it’s important to recognise when things are becoming too much.
The stress we feel when overwhelmed or exhausted by something has negative effects on our mental and physical health. Everyone tackles problems and situations in life differently; high pressure jobs, long days and lack of sleep can all cause stress and be stressful themselves. But if they begin to make you excessively anxious, angry, frustrated or even ill, this is bad stress and can begin to take its toll on your body if not dealt with as soon as possible.
Our mental health is as important as our physical health. When stress becomes too much for us to handle, it can lead to further problems such as anxiety and depression.
Mental health issues are difficult to diagnose, but there is plenty of help available if you feel worried about it. Talking to your GP or contacting a mental health charity such as Mind or Heads Together will give you more information and some helpful tips to aid you in managing your stress.
Signs that stress is beginning to impact on your mental health could include:
- Having trouble concentrating/focusing
- Struggling to make decisions
- Worrying more than usual
- Negative thoughts
- Being unable to ‘shut down’ or feel calm and relaxed often
If we allow these symptoms to go on for a prolonged period and your mind is in a constant state of high alert, it can begin to affect your physical health as well as mental.
The body is affected by stress (even by the good kind) every time you experience it. The hypothalamus, a part of your brain that helps to control the release of hormones, recognises a stimulus and releases the stress hormones which trigger your ‘fight or flight’ response. These can cause your heart rate to increase, make your breathing erratic, shallower or quicker and tenses your muscles in preparation for your reaction
In most cases, these situations do not arise often, and the body can relax again. But if you feel stressed for a long time or regularly, the body can start to struggle to cope with being in a heightened state. The long-term effects of stress on your physical health can include:
- Damage to the heart
If your heart rate is raised for too long it can start to become damaged through being overworked. Your blood vessels become constricted and your blood pressure gets higher forcing your heart to work harder.
- A weakened immune system
Your body can struggle to fight illness when you are stressed. You may also be more susceptible to becoming sick. This is because the stress hormone corticosteroid suppresses white blood cells called lymphocytes which are a cell that aid immunity.
- Stomach issues
Your entire digestive system can be affected by long-term stress. It becomes inhibited during periods of stress because your central nervous system contracts the muscles and restricts blood flow. Stress can also cause the oesophagus to contract, which can make swallowing difficult.
- Weight gain
Research from the University of Miami found that when people were stressed, they consumed up to 40% more food than usual Weight gain can put pressure on internal organ’s function and cause long-term illnesses.
Other ways that stress can manifest in your physical health include:
- Fertility issues
- Tense muscles
How to manage stress
Although you cannot avoid stress entirely, you can manage it. Recognising your reactions to stress will help you to learn what works for you to help tackle them. Some suggestions from the NHS are
- Breathing exercises
- Sharing your problems with friends and family or a professional therapist
- Regular exercise
- Giving yourself space for a break or holiday
- Make sure you get the best night’s sleep possible regularly
- Practice mindful exercises such as meditation, yoga, colouring or art therapies
The information in these pages is intended as general advice only. If you or your family member have any medical concerns, please contact your GP.