Let's talk about stress (Part 1)
All of us have some knowledge and experience of stress. Stress is often talked about, and we hear all the time about how stress is bad for us. This article (which is article 1 of 2) aims to shed a bit more light on stress, different types of stress and how it can impact us, so that you can think more about it in relation to yourself.
First things first…
- Stress is inevitable to some extent. Everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives.
- Stress isn’t inherently bad – for example, we know that cortisol (a stress hormone) rises sharply when upon waking, giving us the energy and drive to get out of bed and get our day started. We also need a certain amount of stress to get things done in our day.
- Stress isn’t always a negative thing – some situations can be stressful, but they are also positive. For example, planning a wedding, or moving house can be both stressful but also exciting and bring happiness.
Another important point to know about stress, is that it is supposed to be an acute and rapid response to a situation, to help you to cope with the situation. We are designed to spend most of our time in a more relaxed state, only needing the stress response for those occasions when there is a threat. For example, we cross the road and a car suddenly comes round the corner, our stress response kicks in instantly and it allows us to either jump back onto the pavement, or speed up to make it to the other side before the car comes.
Remember that our brains are wired for survival, so they are routinely looking out for any threat, and if threat is perceived, the stress response will be activated. This is also known as ‘fight or flight’. During the stress response, a cascade of stress hormones are released into the body and this results in lots of physiological changes which are getting us ready to respond (heart rate increases, digestion turns off, pupils dilate).
The problem we often see with stress is when it is chronic, and long-lasting, rather than acute and rapid. Chronic, ongoing stress is extremely common in today’s world. There are lots of potential reasons for this, and they are likely different for different people. Sometimes people know they are stressed because they can notice it very easily. However, for others, particularly when the stress has been chronic and long-lasting it can start to feel like the norm, making it perhaps harder to identify.
Types of stress
When we hear the word ‘stress’, we often think of things like having a stressful job, or rushing around all day with too much to do. Whilst these are clear stressors, there are other types of stress that are perhaps less obvious but can be problematic for us.
Some less obvious sources of stress might be things like watching the news a lot, and therefore being exposed to scary events or accounts of suffering. Or not eating enough, or not getting enough nutrients for your body to work optimally. Or not sleeping enough.
An even less obvious, but very common source of stress, can be the beliefs and narratives that we have developed. These can include a variety of messages, such as ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I need to please others’, ‘People don’t like me’. These kinds of beliefs and narratives can be active much of the time, and very easily triggered, and therefore the stress response is chronically activated. Remember, the brain believes our thoughts and interpretations, so the brain treats these beliefs in the same way as it does an external threat. Unhelpful or self-critical beliefs sometimes stem from previous traumatic experiences, but can also develop due to messages we have seen from those around us, or from society.
Many people find that even when they try to reduce their stress (for example by taking less on), they still find themselves feeling stressed much of the time, and in my experience this is often because of the internal stressors mentioned above which continue to play out.
Stress and Health
Research indicates that chronic and long-lasting stress has a variety of detrimental effects on the body. Here are some of the ways stress can impact the body:
When our body is in the threat/stress response, energy diverts away from things like digestion because the body is focused on making sure our energy is focused on fighting or fleeing. Therefore, it makes sense that chronic stress has been linked to digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, as well as symptoms such as bloating, gas and constipation.
Our thyroid controls our metabolic rate, and is highly impacted by chronic stress. Research indicates that chronic stress can slow the thyroid down, which can lead to several symptoms such as feeling very fatigued, feeling cold a lot, feeling low in mood, hair loss and dry skin.
Research also indicates a link between chronic stress and its impact on our hormones. For example, there is evidence to suggest that chronic stress can impact on the production of progesterone in females, which can increase difficulties including premenstrual syndrome. There is also evidence that chronic stress can lead to the loss of the menstrual cycle for some (why would your body feel safe to reproduce if it feels so under threat?).
When stressed, our immune function is also lowered. Therefore, if we are chronically stressed, we are much more likely to pick up viruses and infections, and be less able to fight them off as well as we should. You may have noticed that when you are run down, you often get ill soon after.
So, with all that said, look out for part 2 where I will talk more about what you can do to help yourself!
Dr Theresa Comer, Clinical Psychologist.