As we saw in Part 1: What is Stress Exactly? stress is your body’s reaction to a perceived threat. What we regard as threatening is very personal. Something very stressful for me may not even register on your stress radar. Once the stressor is gone, we should be able to return to a state of balance – heart and breathing rate should return to normal for example.
What happens when it doesn’t though? What if the thing that stresses us out doesn’t go away? What if the stress is chronic? Many people are in a stressed state in their day to day lives. For some people, it’s been going on so long they even regard this as normal. It may not occur to them to seek help for chronic stress, but what effect is it having on their health?
Well, here are a few of the risks that are heightened when we experience chronic stress:
- supressed immune function – vulnerability to infection, longer healing times, susceptibility to colds/flu
- increased risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, and angina
- increases in cholesterol which increases risk of heart disease
- chronically tight muscles – risk of tension headaches and migraines, back pain, neck pain
- impaired digestive system – constipation/diarrhea/IBS/stomach ulcers/heartburn
- skin eruptions, such as eczema
- interrupted sleep, low energy, and irritability
- impaired cognitive function – difficulty learning, poor memory
- depression or anxiety
- Addictive behaviour (drinking alcohol, comfort eating, smoking)
Sadly, chronic stress is a real problem in the UK. Research commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation found that three in four Britons felt overwhelmed by stress. One in three people admitted to feeling suicidal in the 12 months before they were surveyed, and one in six admitted to self harming. It makes for pretty grim reading and highlights the importance of looking after your mental health. This 2017 survey commissioned by The Physiological Society outlines an interesting map of Stress in Modern Britain.
Ultimately, the message is that living in a state of prolonged stress can damage your health and threaten your wellbeing. If you suffer from chronic stress, there are steps you can take to reduce your health risks, which will be the topic of the next blog post. But in the meantime, take a look at the advice offered by the NHS on how to deal with stress.