With more of us struggling with daily pressures, it’s difficult to tell when stress is taking over. Health writer Helen Foster asks the experts how we can read the signs and take action
April may be Stress Awareness Month, but it seems that stress is constantly on our minds. More than a third of the UK workforce is experiencing anxiety or stress, while many of us are blurring the lines between work and home – often struggling to switch off. A recent study, published in the scientific journal Nature Neuroscience, has even found that one person’s stress-levels can affect other people’s because we can unintentionally pass on our feelings of stress to those around us.
So, how do we take back control? Helen Foster asked the experts…
What does stress do to our body?
Stress is your body’s natural response to a threat. “During times of stress the body sends a signal to the brain that triggers it to get ready to stand and fight or run for your life,” says Lorna Cordwell, psychotherapist at Chrysalis Counselling Courses. “Our body produces chemicals like cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. Blood rushes to your muscles, senses become heightened and your immune system is primed to protect you in case you are injured.
“In the short term this response is extremely helpful – it helps to keep us alive, after all. But, it was only ever supposed to last long enough to get us out of trouble,” says Lorna. “Living in a state of constant stress means the body’s responses to stress are firing all the time. This is when the positives can turn to negatives.
“Those muscles that prime us to run begin to tighten, leading to aches and pains. The immune system tires and can become less effective, while the increased heart rate and blood flow can trigger high blood pressure.”
The subtle signs you’ve reached this point
85% of us report experiencing stress regularly, according to a survey by healthcare company Forth. Because we’re so used to feeling stressed, it can be hard to spot when we’re approaching the risky zone until it’s too late. “There are, however, some common signs to look for,” says psychotherapist Dr Gary Bloom.
“Changes to appetite are often an early clue of out-of-control stress. Some people find they lose their appetite completely, while others ‘comfort eat’.
“Stress also heightens addictive behaviour. If you’re using more alcohol or other stimulants than normal, then it could be a signal that it’s time to address your stress levels. Also, look to the quality of your sleep, as that is usually the first thing affected by stress,” says Gary.
If you’re suffering from more headaches than usual, it may be worth knowing that stress is a major cause of these. Stress can cause you to hunch your shoulders and even grind your teeth, so these are signs that you’re feeling overwhelmed. Similarly, the chemicals we produce as part of the ‘fight or flight’ reaction can cause menstrual cycles to feel more painful, according to a study published in the Journal of Women’s Health.
“Lastly, stress can affect our cognitive functions,” says Gary. “If you’re finding it hard to concentrate or prioritise tasks, that could be because of stress.” Similarly, irritability, particularly towards your colleagues, friends or family, could also indicate that your stress levels are higher than they should be.
How to control stress before it controls you
It’s important to take control of stress and reduce it, and quickly. While long-term, unrelenting stress is the most harmful type, a new study from the US has found that people who decompress and deal with minor stresses daily (for example, with yoga, meditation or even just talking to their partner or a friend) are less likely to develop longer-lasting health effects than someone who doesn’t handle things on a day-to-day basis.
One tactic Gary suggests is to create a ‘worry zone’. This is a set point in the day, maybe just before you leave work, when you aim to mentally tackle the things that are causing you stress. If you can’t find a resolution to them, then at least visualise throwing them into the ‘worry zone’ until tomorrow. This helps stop your mind from dwelling on them all night.
Creating a clear distance between work and home can also help. Switch off work emails at 6pm and read a book on the train. Or meet a friend after work to switch off your work brain. Seeing friends is particularly important. “Scientists at the University of California investigated how both genders recover from stress and discovered that for women, talking and being with others is key,” says Lorna.
A lot of the stress in our lives is created by our mind. We ruminate on or panic about what’s concerning us. “Meditation can help change the way you think,” says Chloe Brotheridge, hypnotherapist and anxiety expert. “It helps to alter the brain, reducing the activity of the part of the brain responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response (the amygdala). It also helps to increase our ‘grey matter’, which is a major part of the central nervous system and helps with rational thinking. Spend 10 minutes a day doing guided meditation or use a meditation app such as Headspace.”
Stress is a fact of life for many of us, but when you neutralise its negative effects, it can go back to being a force for good. “Stress can be an important motivator,” says Lorna. “You just need to get the balance right.”
Did you know that stress could be a trigger for Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Read our guide to IBS to get clued up
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