Why we are stressed, how it affects us and how to manage it

Dozens of modern studies have found that stress levels are increasing in modern life. With pressures at work, constant connectivity through smartphones, increasing threats of terrorism or other dangers across the globe, and hundreds of other things just waiting to be worried about, it’s no surprise that more and more of us are feeling anxious and struggling to get a good night’s sleep on a daily basis.

It’s important to reduce stress

Stress (and our body’s physiological response to it) is a complex evolutionary system designed to keep us safe in times of danger. It can be particularly useful when you are in genuine danger or are playing sport, but can cause a range of different health issues if you are experiencing stress consistently over long periods of time – usually as a result of modern-day problems or anxieties. For this reason it is important to properly manage stress and take steps to reduce it in your daily life.

The biological process when you become stressed

Many people are all too familiar with the range of biological effects on your body that occur when we become stressed. Your heart rate will increase and your breathing can become quicker and more shallow. Your muscles may become tense and your joints could start to ache. On top of this, it’s not uncommon to feel anxious and irritable – possibly leading to feelings of depression and difficulty when trying to get to sleep.

The process begins with the central nervous system. Sensing danger, this system stimulates the release of adrenaline and cortisol. In response to this your breathing may become quicker – this is your body trying to distribute more oxygen around your body. If you’re asthmatic or have other respiratory problems, these can become exacerbated at this point.

Stress hormones will also cause your heart to pump faster. Your blood vessels will become constricted and your blood pressure will therefore increase. Your skeletal muscles will also tense up in preparation for physical activity – the expected ‘fight or flight’. In men, testosterone levels may also temporarily spike.

When you’re stressed your liver produces extra glucose – this provides more energy (which can be essential if you are actually in a dangerous situation). If this extra glucose isn’t used by the body – for example through physical exertion – then the body reabsorbs it. Stress temporarily boosts your immune system, but as we will see later it can actually weaken your immune response over a long period of time.

The harmful effects of stress on your body

While these effects will not harm you if you only feel stressed every once in a while, they can cause a range of different health issues if you are chronically stressed.

When you suffer from chronic stress your heart works too hard, which increases the risk of hypertension and other cardiac issues like a heart attack or stroke. The repeated re-absorption of glucose can also encourage the onset of type-2 diabetes.

Chronic stress also increases the likelihood of heartburn and acid reflux. Stress itself doesn’t cause stomach ulcers, but it can irritate any existing ulcers. Other negative effects for your stomach can include vomiting and stomach ache, potentially with diarrhoea or constipation. This is because stress affects how food passes through your body.

When you’re constantly stressed your muscle rarely relax – leading to aches and pains. This can especially cause problems around the shoulders, neck and back. This pain can cause many people to turn to pain medication, which can itself make things worse as you enter a vicious cycle.

Finally, the release of cortisol from chronic stress can weaken your immune system and its inflammatory response. This can make you more vulnerable to illnesses like the common cold, and can increase the amount of time needed to recover from illness or injury.

Techniques to manage stress

There are a number of techniques for managing stress. Regular exercise and enough sleep are both important to make sure you feel refreshed without letting stress get on top of you. Many people also choose to write their feelings down when they’re feeling stressed – seeing the thoughts in black and white often helps people to realise that they are unnecessary worries and most likely won’t happen.

With work pressures it can be easy to ignore those activities or hobbies that bring us enjoyment. But often when you start to feel burnt out from work, it is these nourishing activities that we need to bring us a sense of calm and inner peace. If you’re struggling to overcome stress, set aside some time to enjoy yourself and you’ll be surprised how differently you approach the stresses in your life afterwards.

Mindfulness as a technique to reduce stress

Mindfulness is the practice of living in (and paying attention to) the present moment. This could be through formal meditations or by practicing during everyday activities – like walking to work, having a shower or eating dinner.

The idea is to notice your surroundings, the way your body feels, and most importantly the arising of any thoughts or emotions. By paying close attention to the coming and going of thoughts, you learn to accept that the mind ‘has a mind of its own’ and that just because you are thinking about something (such as causes of stress in your life) it does not mean that this stressor rules your life. By practicing this, you can come to accept that dwelling on problems won’t solve them – giving you a sense of peace that will in time make it easier for you to make good decisions and take affirmative action to actually reduce the stress in your life.