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The Destructive Impact of Stress on Your Body

18 March 2022

Stress - a response to an external cause, such as pressing work deadlines, financial pressures or an argument with a friend - usually goes away when the stress-inducing situation is resolved.

But what about when it doesn’t?

Long-term or excessive stress will begin to impact the health of your body and mind.

How does stress affect the body?

When left unchecked, stress can cause varied physical and mental symptoms which can have a huge impact on health and wellbeing.

Our bodies are highly intelligent. The brain responds automatically to stress by alerting the parts of the body which are responsible for the short and long term consequences of stress, such as the immune, cardiovascular and endocrine systems.

Often the stress response set into motion by our brains is very helpful. Think of the helpful adrenaline rush when you give a presentation or perform. Or when fight or flight mode kicks in when you are in a dangerous situation.

However, when in excess these stress responses can be destructive. The overproduction of adrenaline can cause fatigue, anxiousness and irritability. High levels of stress can accelerate the ageing of our cells and result in the early onset of age-related diseases.  Immune-boosting functions can become overloaded, leaving us more susceptible to illness.

Just some of the consequences of stress for our physical health include:

  • Tension headaches and migraines
  • Insomnia
  • Heartburn
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakened immune system
  • High blood pressure and increased risk of a heart attack
  • High blood sugar and increased risk of type 2 diabetes
  • Racing heartbeat or heart murmurs
  • Stomachaches or IBS
  • Fertility problems and hormone change

Stress also causes havoc for the brain. The working of the prefrontal cortex (which regulates brain activity and behaviour) becomes impaired by stress. The result is a decline in working memory capability, in decision-making and self-control. Excessive stress can also wear you down emotionally and lead to depression.

But luckily there are many simple tricks and tools to help us deal with stress.

Simple ways to deal with stress

Better Work-Life Balance

Time - or more accurately the lack of it - is often a cause of stress.

Finding ways to create more time can help you to find more balance in your life and reduce stress. You might create time by outsourcing household chores, reducing unnecessary commitments or by establishing a better work-life balance.

If work is a major cause of stress, don’t be afraid to make changes which will reduce your stress and improve your quality of life. Working weekends, answering work calls out of hours, constant stress about unachievable deadlines, and bosses that won’t listen when you attempt to highlight your work-caused stress are all red flags - clear signs that you need to change your work-life balance!

Exercise

Exercise can be an excellent way to clear the mind, as well as to improve physical health. All forms of exercise help to reduce stress hormones and increase endorphins (the happiness hormone!), which both work together to encourage relaxation.

Stress-busting exercise can be anything that you enjoy doing, as long as it helps to bring you a sense of calm and direct you to focus on the present moment.

Yoga, running, hiking, cycling or swimming are just some of the many exercise options which will help to reduce stress.

The Great Outdoors

Fresh air and the beauty of nature are wonderfully therapeutic for troubled minds. A brisk walk in the chilly autumn breeze or a quiet sit in the warm summer sun can help to empty the mind, relax your breathing and heartbeat, and instil a sense of peacefulness.

Most especially, sudden exposure to cold air (or cold water if it is not winter) can help to stop a downward spiral of anxiety and stress by refocusing the mind and distracting the body.

Socialising

Talking with people that you trust and that bring you joy can boost your mood and distract you from stress. Sharing our worries can help to reduce stress and often others can see solutions where our wrung-out stressed minds can see only problems.

Meditation

Mindfulness - or the practice of focusing on the present - can lower your stress response, reduce anxiety, help to regulate emotions, and increase self-awareness and self-control.

There are many great mindfulness and relaxation apps that offer guided meditations for beginners and the experienced.

While meditation is a common technique for practising mindfulness, arts and crafts, gardening, walking and prayer are just some of the alternative methods. The key to choosing an effective mindfulness activity is that it should bring you peace and calmness, and encourage you to focus on the present (perhaps by deliberately engaging your senses).

Avoiding the Unhealthy

While many tips about reducing stress involve introducing healthier habits to your life, it is also important to remove the unhealthy.

This might be ending unhealthy eating habits, smoking, or a sedentary lifestyle. It might mean cutting toxic friends or family members out of your life. You might need to restrict negative thinking, self-criticism and the drive for unattainable perfection.