Stressed man at his desk

From changes in our exercise patterns to issues with our gut, here’s how stress can manifest itself from top to toe and the stress signs you need to look out for.

The feeling of stress is all too familiar for those of us juggling busy lifestyles. But how do we spot when our stress levels are on the rise and if it’s time to take action?

Wellbeing journalist Rebecca Denne enlists the advice of six experts to tell us the less obvious signs to look out for…

1. The Dietician

One of the first signs of stress may actually come from your digestive system. The gut and brain are very closely linked, so changes in one can affect the other. Stress or lack of sleep can affect the environment in the gut, impacting which bacteria can live there. This can lead to changes to your usual digestive patterns, manifesting in bloating, constipation or diarrhoea, for example.

If you notice that your usual routine is disrupted it may be worth thinking if there is anything that is causing you more stress than usual. Eating regularly and getting plenty of plant and fermented foods such as yogurt and tempeh can help to repopulate your gut with beneficial bacteria.

– Jo Travers, dietician and author of The Low Fad Diet

2. The Personal Trainer

When we’re under significant amounts of stress, our performance (whether that’s in the gym, running or cycling) can be significantly jeopardised. You might notice your strength levels or stamina decreasing – perhaps you’re not doing as many reps in the gym or you’re not running as fast or as far. You may even notice that you’re struggling to maintain or build muscle tissue – this can be due to cortisol (the stress hormone) starting to break down protein within in the body.

If you’re feeling under high amounts of stress – or in a period of fatigue – it might be worth considering taking ‘deloads’. Deloads are a way to give your body a much-needed rest for a week or two, every four to eight weeks. Try decreasing your amount of exercise or the intensity, that way you’re still staying active and working your muscles, but you’re taking things down a notch and allowing your body to recover.

– Aaron Montandon, Personal Trainer

3. The Wellbeing expert

Chronic stress can impact our physical health as well as emotional. You might find that’s it more difficult to make decisions, your mood changes regularly or you’re procrastinating more than usual, or you have reoccurring symptoms such as headaches.

These could all be signs that you’re experiencing chronically elevated stress – this long-term activation of the stress-response system can lead to an overexposure to stress hormones, disrupting almost all of your body’s processes. It may exacerbate other health conditions such as anxiety, obesity, insomnia, autoimmune disease, high blood pressure and depression.

If you’re noticing indications of stress and it’s affecting your ability to live a normal life and perform at work, visit your GP or consider talking therapy. Vitality members can take advantage of talking therapy via Big White Wall, a Mental Health Panel offering sessions with accredited therapists.

– Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health

4. The Nutritional Therapist

When it comes to nutrition and the foods we gravitate towards, stress really does have a lot to answer for. You may be craving high-sugar foods such as chocolate or alcohol, and you may reach for the caffeine to help you through the day.

Try to eat three portions of protein (fish, eggs, poultry, beans, tofu, nuts are all good sources) each day, which can help slow down the release of sugar from the food you eat. This means you’re less likely to get sugar spikes and dips which can intensify stress symptoms.

In addition, when our bodies are under prolonged stress, we require greater amounts of B Complex vitamins. Vitamin B5 is needed to make the stress hormone cortisol while Vitamin B12 is required to make adrenaline, the ‘fight or flight’ hormone. So, reach for foods rich in B vitamins such as cheese, whole grains and dark leafy veg to combat this.

– Penny Crowther, The Nutritionist London

5. The GP

When the body is stressed, the nervous system responds by releasing hormones to prepare the body for an emergency – to either fight or flight. While both of these states are a natural reaction to stress, if we’re experiencing them too often, they can have negative effects.

When our body is in ‘fight mode’, we might display defiant behaviour and act more aggressively towards others – ask yourself whether you’re having more arguments or disputes with people than normal. When in ‘flight mode’ we may find ourselves retreating from confrontation, avoiding people, being twitchy or nervous or having increased time off work.

The Vitality Health Check with Bluecrest Health Screening is a great way to check in on your health and spot the hidden warning signs.. The check assesses everything from your cholesterol and blood pressure to your mental health and anxiety levels – book via the Member Zone.

– Dr Josh Cullimore, GP at Bluecrest

6. The Talking Therapist

Stress can impact us all in different ways and what one person experiences can be completely different to another. Emotionally, stress may make us feel low, anxious, overwhelmed or irritable. We may experience changes in our behaviour such as comfort eating and drinking or smoking more, and we might not feel like doing things we used to do, like socialising or hobbies.

One of the first ways to spot these stress signs is taking time to check in with how we’re feeling in our body and mind. Mindfulness and meditation practices can be a helpful way of taking 10 minutes to tune in with how we’re doing. Similarly, making a note of stressful situations can be useful to notice any triggers or patterns in our thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, our friends and family around us can spot changes sooner than we do, so consider asking them to mention any changes that they may have noticed.

– Clare Stebbens, Senior Clinician, Big White Wall

Worried about stress? Download the Vitality GP app for access to 24/7 video consultations with private GPs.

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