What happens to your body when you are overly stressed?
Stress is the body’s natural response to environmental stimuli. It is an emotional and physical response to a perceived threat, either from inside or outside the body. When a threat is perceived there is an increase in your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, and glucose levels. These changes are designed to ensure you are physically ready to respond to stress. After the stressful event or emotion is over, the body returns back to balance. If this stress is short-term, no detrimental effects are caused.
Although this is a natural response, when stress is experienced consistently and/or at a high level it can increase the risk of health issues such as cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.Chronic stress is now known to detrimentally affect behaviour, mental health and physical wellbeing.
Too much stress can be damaging to your health, putting you at a higher risk of illness and disease.
How stress affects your body
When the body experiences stress the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis are activated. This leads to the release of stress hormones and immune suppressant hormones, both of which can increase your body’s susceptibility to illness and disease.
When we see mental health as more than just the absence of mental illness, we can look to improve our overall wellbeing and outlook on life, thereby reducing the risk of physical disease and mental health issues.
Stress as a risk factor for disease
Stress is a risk factor for many health issues and diseases. Stress is related to the progression of asthma, type 2 diabetes mellitus, metabolic syndrome and some cancers. Work stress in particular has been found to increase the risk of some cancers. Studies show that colorectal, oesophagus, lung, bladder and stomach cancers increase with higher work stress, with men being more at risk of these stress-related cancers than women.
Psychological stress is a risk factor for physical illness and can affect the progression of diseases such as diabetes mellitus, metabolic syndrome and cancer.
Differences in expressing stress
Not everyone responds to stressful situations the same way. Some of these differences are genetic, some are due to upbringing, and some are due to differences in biology. For example, women tend to report higher stress levels than men, but as they are more likely to express their difficulties in experiencing and dealing with stress. However it is important to note that men still can experience the same level of stress – they just tend to express it differently. Stress from work can affect women and men differently with some studies showing that women may be more affected due to struggling more with the balance between work and family life.
Strategies for stress reduction
Given the negative effect chronic stress can have on your health, it makes sense to get some support if you are feeling particularly stressed. Strategies to reduce stress can include lifestyle strategies, specific dietary changes, and nutritional and herbal medicines aimed at reducing symptoms and improving the body’s resistance to stress. Some examples include:
• Lifestyle strategies: Mindfulness practices, relaxation training, breathing techniques, guided meditation, and positive psychology principles.
• Dietary recommendations: Moderating intake of caffeinated beverages, limiting alcohol intake, and eating a nutrient-rich, plant-based diet.
• Herbal and nutritional medicines: Nutrients such as magnesium and B vitamins are critical during times of high stress. In addition, herbs traditionally used for stress and anxiety may also be useful (e.g. lavender, passionflower and lemon balm)