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Is stress making you sick? The myriad of unforeseen effects of stress on our bodies and minds

When was the last time you felt your heart racing and your breath quicken?

You might be stuck in traffic, late for an important meeting, late for work for the 3rd time that week, rushing to meet an important deadline and all you can do is watch the minutes tick away while you sit there helplessly.

Your hypothalamus, a tiny control tower in your brain, decides to send out the order; “Send in the stress hormones!”

These stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your body’s ‘fight or flight’ response.

Your heartbeat rushes, your breath accelerates to pants, and your muscles ready for action.

This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly.

But when this ‘stress response’ keeps firing, day after day, it could put your health at serious risk.

 

stress

 

Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to everyday life experiences.

Everyone experiences stress from time to time. Anything from everyday responsibilities like work and family to serious life events such as a new health diagnosis, global pandemics, or the death of a loved one can trigger stress.

For immediate, short-term situations, stress can actually be beneficial to your health. It can help you cope with potentially serious situations.

However, stress levels that stay elevated for longer than is necessary for survival can take a toll on your health. This is where it becomes chronic.

Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and will affect your overall well-being.

Psychological and emotional symptoms of chronic stress include:

• Headaches and migraines
• Depression or anxiety
• Anger, irritability, or restlessness
• Feeling overwhelmed, unmotivated, or unfocused
• Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
• Racing thoughts or constant worry
• Problems with your memory or concentration
• Making bad decisions

Physical symptoms of stress include:

• Low energy
• Headaches
• Upset stomach, including diarrhoea, constipation, bloating and nausea
• Aches, pains, and tense muscles
• Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
• Insomnia
• Frequent colds and infections
• Loss of sexual desire and/or ability.

Other side effects of stress – and this is where it also becomes particularly harmful – is the use of coping mechanisms that many people turn to in order to deal with stress and stressful situations.

The use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs to try to relieve stress causes more harm than good.

Unfortunately, instead of relieving the stress and returning the body to a relaxed state, these substances tend to keep the body in a stressed state and cause more problems.

Contemplate the following statistics:

• Forty-three per cent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress
• Seventy-five per cent to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints
• Stress can play a part in problems such as high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, asthma and arthritis. These conditions all exacerbate later on in life
• The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace. Stress costs American industries more than $300 billion annually
• The lifetime prevalence of an emotional disorder is more than 50%, often due to chronic, untreated stress reactions and can often lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Considering all these scary statistics, and the ‘new normal’ way of living (working from home, restricted social life) that we are all trying to get acclimatised to, what can we do to cope with stress and lead calmer lives?

Enter stress management.

Stress management isn’t something we’re taught at school or at home by our parents.

Have you ever been told to “Just tough it up”, or “Stop being so dramatic” or, “It’ll all be better soon”?

These are not helpful comments when trying to help someone deal with stress and stressful situations.

Our loved ones can learn to manage stress, and lead happier healthier lives.

But before helping others, help yourself. We need to take the first step and try to arm ourselves with some healthy habits to fight stress at the first sign.

 

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Here are some tips to help you keep stress at bay:

• Try your hardest to keep a positive attitude. Practise thanking God for everything you have, at least once a day
• Accept that there are events that you cannot control and let go
• Be assertive instead of aggressive. Assert your feelings, opinions, or beliefs respectfully instead of becoming angry, defensive, or passive
• Learn and practice relaxation techniques; try meditation, prayer, Pilates or tai-chi for stress management
• Exercise regularly, preferably daily. Your body can fight stress a lot better when it is fit
• Eat healthy, well-balanced meals, but don’t overly restrict yourself as it can lead to binge eating
• Learn to manage your time more effectively. This might mean saying no to that party so you can have a quiet night in to finish that chapter of the book you keep putting off
• Set limits appropriately and learn to say no to requests that would create excessive stress in your life
• Make time for hobbies, interests, and relaxation
• Get enough rest and prioritise sleep. The average adult needs 8 hours of sleep a night. Most adults barely get 6 hours! Your body needs time to recover from stressful events
• Don’t wait for the weekend to relax! Don’t rely on alcohol, drugs, or compulsive behaviours to reduce stress. Make time every day for the healthy enjoyment of life such as dining out or swimming in the ocean
• Seek out social support. Spend enough time with those you enjoy and whose company is psychologically beneficial
• Seek treatment with a psychologist or other mental health professional trained in stress management or biofeedback techniques to learn healthy ways of dealing with the stress in your life. Try not to be embarrassed to seek help or ask for it. Don’t allow others to influence you on what is right for you. Follow your heart and trust your gut.

 

For more information on stress and trauma, visit the following pages:

• Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) National Health Survey: first results, 2017–18
• ABS National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: summary of results, 2007
• Orygen 2008 Trauma and young people: moving toward trauma-informed services and systems
Phoenix Australia

 

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How to boost your immune system through nutrition

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