The Impact of Chronic Stress on Your Health and Wellbeing
Make it your key mission to find enough calm in your life
Stress isn’t an inherently bad thing. It’s a natural response to a situation in which we feel danger and gives us a burst of energy to move out of the way. However, if we remain stressed for too long, or get into a state of stress when it’s perhaps not an appropriate response, it becomes detrimental to our health.
Stress results in elevated chemicals and hormones released by our brain which then impacts the primary systems in our bodies such as breathing, brain function, nervous system and blood pressure.
It might seem obvious that reducing levels of stress is good for your health and wellbeing, but what’s often missing is understanding the ‘what’ the ‘why’ and the ‘how’.
The UK Charity, Mind, has a great definition of stress:
“Stress is how we react when we feel under pressure or threatened. It usually happens when we are in a situation that we don’t feel we can manage or control. We may experience it as an individual (e.g. struggling to manage responsibilities), as part of a group (e.g. family bereavement or financial problems), as part of a community (e.g. facing discrimination) or as a member of society (e.g. facing a natural disaster or pandemic).”
A little bit of stress can be helpful, but we want to look at that happens when you’re in a state of prolonged stress. Chronic stress as we know it is a modern-day epidemic with a detrimental impact on our health. By now most people are getting better at recognising that there isn’t really a separation between physical and mental health – you can’t have one without the other.
This kind of stress is known to contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure, it affects the immune system, and is linked to a range of health events and conditions such as strokes, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, ulcers, diabetes, muscle and joint pain, and allergies.
When we experience stress, we move into fight or flight mode, and it can also take us into freeze and fawn – these are all called ‘sympathetic states’ (despite not sounding very sympathetic at all!). Staying here in this sympathetic state for too long is a significant cause of inflammation in the body which can lead to the chronic diseases and conditions outlined above.
What Causes Chronic Stress?
Through the emotional, neurological, physiological and socio-economic lenses there are many reasons why we may be chronically stressed:
– Our emotional needs are not being met
– Trauma – major life events, adverse childhood experiences, bereavement
– Conditioning – past experiences have primed us to scan for danger
– Emotional arousal – in which we simulate threat through mind loops, despite not being in actual danger (thinking about the danger)
– Social stress and social-economic cruelty – feeling insecure in our home, at work, with our finances
– Our environment – where and how we grew up as well as current life conditions
– The environment – air quality and air pollution (toxic particulates from fuel, chemicals, burning wood)
– Sleep – not getting enough of it, inconsistent patterns of sleep, and poor quality sleep
– Nutrition – not enough fibre or polyphenols (from brightly coloured or strongly flavoured foods) and too much ultra-processed food
– Lack of exercise – we’re simply not moving enough
– Loneliness – this has been identified as the biggest risks factor for morbidity and mortality
Did you know that long term exposure to threats and trauma can lead to not only an increase in the risk of chronic illness, but also a persistent change in gene expression?
What Happens When We’re Stressed?
Stress brings about cognitive, emotional, physical or behavioural changes in a person, or even a combination of all four.
Some of the symptoms you may experience if you’re stressed:
– Cognitive: poor memory, poor judgement, self-doubt
– Emotional: angry, irritable, anxious, lonely, tense
– Physical: fatigue, sick, sweating, weight loss/gain, muscle pains, blurry eyesight
– Behavioural: poor concentration, hard to make decisions, tearful, withdrawn, restless, snappy
The How (can we build emotional resilience to stress)
The way stress appears is different from one person to the next, and although it isn’t avoidable, it is manageable. You can take steps today to help to self-regulate your body and your mind and build resilience to chronic stress or lessen the grip it has on you.
– Become more self-aware and recognise patterns in your stress response. You can tune into what you need or how you’re feeling through quiet reflection or journaling
– Learn to self-regulate the autonomic nervous system, for example through meditation, mindfulness, or breath work, being in nature, writing a gratitude list, doing a digital detox, set some boundaries and say “no”
– Reconnect to your body – move in a way that brings you joy or pleasure…anything as long as you move it! (dance, gardening, walking, playing with children, fitness)
– Bring a focus to good gut health – we are what we eat (food and herbal medicine)
– Stay hydrated – your water intake comes via both drinks and food
– Tone your vagal nerve – for example by humming or singing
– Bring a focus to getting good quality sleep – how do you prepare for bed, what are you consuming (food / information) before bed, do you prioritise your sleep, do you expose your eyes to enough natural daylight early on in the day?
– Re-establish safety in relationship:
Trust yourself – for example by setting some boundaries or fulfilling small daily promises to yourself
Connect with others – building relationships helps to support your immune system and creates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical wellbeing
Work with a therapist or healthcare practitioner – holistic healthcare such as homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, somatic therapy, cranio-sacral therapy, Internal Family Systems, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, Ayurveda; Lifestyle healthcare: nutritional therapy, movement
If you feel as if you’re struggling with chronic stress and want to take proactive steps to manage it but aren’t sure where to start, book in to speak to one of our Integrative Healthcare Doctors and co-create an action plan to significantly improve the quality of your health and wellbeing.