Stress. It’s a word associated with present-day society and yet its origins go way back toprehistoric times. For millennia, humans have relied on stress in order to get things done – at first as a tool for physical survival and now, a tool for surviving the demands of modern life. But unless kept under control, stress can cause more harm than good.
And with one in five UK adults claiming to feel stressed more days every month than not, it’s fair to say that our stress isn’t exactly under control. To understand why this is an issue, and how to keep your stress in check, you have to first understand what makes stress so dangerous.
Why is stress dangerous?
Stress is the body’s natural reaction to danger, whether that’s actual danger (like our prehistoric ancestors stumbling across a sabre-toothed tiger) or perceived danger (like our boss’s wrath if that report isn’t turned in on time). When you experience a stressful event, your brain sends a distress signal to other areas of your body, causing a flurry of physical and mental reactions.
These reactions vary from person to person and range in severity, but common symptoms of stress can include:
A racing heart
Changes in appetite
When these symptoms are experienced rarely and briefly, they generally cause little to no harm and therefore stress can actually be a net benefit, helping us to achieve our goals and stay on top of demanding schedules.
However, when stress grows out of control it can become incapacitating. In fact, in 2021, stress, anxiety, and depression accounted for 50% of all work-related health problems, having a devastating impact on the nation’s productivity. But beyond harming productivity, unchecked stress can also contribute towards the development of serious health problems in certain individuals.
The effects of stress
Feeling stressed may be unpleasant but, unfortunately, the effects of stress can be a lot more dangerous than simply having a bad day, week, or month. When it comes to personal health, the more serious effects of stress can vary broadly, but might include the following.
Difficulty regulating emotions
Consistent stress, even when mild, can contribute towards loss of control over your emotions. It’s easier to understand why this is if you remember that your body has limited energy to expend. When you’re stressed, your body thinks that it is under attack and has to spend more energy fighting this. Therefore, it has less energy available for controlling emotions, which it doesn’t perceive to be as immediate a problem.
The damage caused by this can be cyclical – as your stress grows, it becomes harder to manage your emotions and look after yourself, which in turn causes more stress, and so on. This can make it incredibly hard to get out of the cycle once you’re in it and can soon begin to dominate your life.
Increased likelihood of ill health
Chronic stress is associated with the development of more serious conditions, both physical and mental. This is because the body is not designed to be in fight or flight mode permanently and therefore, when this happens, normal functioning is disrupted.
The long-term effects of chronic stress still aren’t fully understood but we know that the stress hormone cortisol plays a large part. Cortisol is involved in the regulation of the body’s inflammatory response and when cortisol levels are too high, inflammation levels rise. Inflammation has been linked to a plethora of health issues, including depression, obesity, susceptibility to infectious diseases, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.
Poor heart health
Over time, stress puts strain on the heart because of the continued release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is another hormone that’s key to the body’s fight or flight response, and it causes your heart rate to speed up. This can lead to high blood pressure, which itself can develop into an increased risk of heart attacks or strokes. What’s more, common habits for mitigating stress such as overeating, smoking, and lack of exercise can exacerbate this risk.
Negative impact on diet
Stress can affect your diet in one of two main ways – drastically undereating or overeating. Undereating is the body’s natural reaction to stress in the short term and, harking back to those prehistoric ancestors, is caused by the need to be in high alert, ready-to-escape-threat mode, rather than the relaxing ritual of eating. Overeating is caused by the desire to seek pleasure-releasing hormones as a response to stress – often referred to as ‘comfort eating’.
These results are thought to be caused by adrenaline or cortisol, and both can cause further problems including health issues related to either obesity or being underweight, as well as mental health difficulties.
Contribution towards premature aging
Stress is well known to cause premature ageing, both on a superficial and biological level. Cortisol can break down the skin’s collagen and elastin, resulting in premature wrinkles. Without getting too deep into the complex science behind biological ageing, the key takeaway is that prolonged exposure to stress can cause cells to age faster than usual, resulting in an accelerated ageing process.
Premature ageing can cause a whole range of additional knock-on issues, such as low self-esteem, and speed up the development of health problems. As stress puts your more at risk of developing health problems anyway, the impact can be incredibly detrimental.
Weakened immune system
Our immune systems become less capable when we’re under continuous stress, meaning minor illnesses like viruses and infections can impact us more readily. It makes it harder for your body to both fight off infections in the first place and to overcome the infection if it is able to break through your immune system’s first line of defence.
This is, again, thought to be because of the effects of cortisol, which limits our immune system’s ability to fight off antigens.
Heavy stress is thought to be able to reduce your lifespan by up to as much as three years. And this impact can be exacerbated by any of the above other effects of stress – if you smoke, overeat, drink too much alcohol, or develop poor heart health as a result of stress, your lifespan may be further shortened.
How to avoid the dangers of stress
Before reading this article becomes a stressful experience in itself, remember: it’s not all doom and gloom. While it’s unrealistic to think that we can live our lives devoid of stress, we also shouldn’t want to. As stated earlier, stress can be incredibly useful in the right doses. And there are plenty of tips, tricks and coping mechanisms that we have at our disposal to help achieve a balance.
The most important thing is learning how to manage your stress. Fortunately, the medical advice on how to do this is pretty simple! Some of the most commonly shared techniques that will help you to minimise stress are to:
Get fresh air and sunlight
Eat a balanced diet
Meditate and practice mindfulness
Learn what your triggers are
Be realistic about your goals and expectations
There are also a range of healthcare treatments that could help you to manage stress, including acupuncture, yoga, counselling, and hypnotherapy. While they’re not ‘cures’ for the effects of stress, they can certainly help to mitigate them in some people.
My Health Assistant has been designed with stress-reduction in mind, making it quicker and easier to find health professionals in your area. If you’d benefit from some help in making lasting changes to your life, whether in the form of one of the treatments listed or even from a nutritionist or personal trainer, search for the service you want and find support near you.