Stress and its effect on your health
Stress plays an important role in our lives, it helps us to be productive to meet deadlines and to spring into action in an emergency. This is “good stress”, the kind that only lasts for a short period of time while we need that rush of adrenaline to react quickly. Stress becomes bad for us when we enter into a chronic state of stress. That is, the stress response doesn’t subside after that short period of time and we find ourselves in a constant state of heightened awareness with our bodies always switched on.
Your body has two nervous systems to control stress. Think of the sympathetic nervous system as your “on” switch, this creates the fight or flight response when your body perceives you to be in danger (good stress). It prompts your body to release a surge of hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, which create a rush of blood to your brain, heart, lungs and muscles so you can think clearly and react quickly.
The parasympathetic nervous system is your “off” switch, it turns off the fight or flight response and helps you to relax. It enables you to rest, to sleep, for your body to heal and repair itself and for your digestive system to function well.
When we live in a chronic state of stress, our body’s ability to “switch off” becomes impaired and the dysfunction of stress hormones like cortisol can have repercussions for a number of vital systems.
- Muscles are constantly tense which can lead to pain, cramping, increased chance of injury, tension headaches and migraines to name a few.
- It can lead to or exacerbate mental health problems like anxiety and depression.
- Sustained increases in heart rate and blood pressure put you at risk of cardiovascular diseases.
- High circulating blood sugar levels increase your risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Altered regulation of your immune system.
- Negatively affects the normal function of your reproductive and digestive systems.
Furthermore, research tells us that when you are in a chronic state of stress the anti-inflammatory function of cortisol becomes impaired, leading to an unchecked inflammatory response. “Stress-induced inflammation has been implicated in diseases such as osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, myopathy, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, temporomandibular joint dysfunction, chronic low back pain, sciatica, and more.” (1)
Stress is a normal part of life and you may not be able to change the stressful events in your life but you can change how your body responds to them by practicing effective stress management strategies.
- Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep
- Use relaxation techniques such as yoga, mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises
- Make time for self-care, rest and hobbies
- Stay socially connected with friends and family
If you are having difficulty managing your stress effectively or you are experiencing anxiety or depression, seek consultation with your GP or a mental health professional.
- Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation. Phys Ther. 2014 Dec; 94(12): 1816–1825.
- Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry. Psychol Bull. 2004 Jul; 130(4): 601–630.
- The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain–body communication. Future Sci OA. 2015 Nov; 1(3): FSO23.