Updated: Aug 12, 2019
The toll that stress takes, and how to recognise and manage it
Has it got to the point where it just feels like being stressed is just your default mode? You might achieve a state of zen now and again, on holidays or on a Saturday afternoon, but you generally spend most of your days experiencing greater or lesser degrees of stress, and it’s started to just feel normal. You’ve accepted it as a reality of life.
Well, that doesn’t have to be the case. And, that it really shouldn’t be the case, as those stress levels aren’t just affecting you in the here and now, but are also taking a toll on your future health, and on those around you.
If you think that stress is a problem for you, then this article is an excellent starting point for getting your life back. It’s not going to happen overnight, but with a little guidance and a little persistence, you should soon be feeling the difference.
We’re going to have a look at the negative effects that stress has on your body. Then, we’ll move on to how to recognise stress, which isn’t always that easy and, lastly, we’ll take a look at how to effectively minimise or manage it in your daily life, so that it doesn’t take over.
The negative effects of stress
1. A weakened immune system
Have you ever been having the month from hell and, to top it all off, caught the flu right in the middle of it? That’s because stress attacks your immune system, meaning it can’t attack any nasty bugs. In fact, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that stress can double your chances of catching a cold.
2. A dodgy stomach
I’m sure you’ve already heard plenty about how connected our brains and our gut are, but did you know that strong emotions can activate neurotransmitters in the GI tract that can either speed things up too much, or slow them down?
3. Tension in the body
This is all part of the famous fight-or-flight instinct. We get stressed when we sense danger of any shape or form, and that means our muscles tense up. You might not realise you’re tense until you start to feel pain in your neck, back and shoulders.
4. Looking less than your best
Looks are, of course, not everything, but that doesn’t mean that looking and feeling our best isn’t a big boost to our self-esteem. Signs of stress can show up on your skin, hair and even nails. You could experience things like under-eye bags, dry flaky skin, acne, rashes, a flushed face, fine lines, greying or thinning hair or grooves in your nails as direct or indirect results of stress.
5. Feeling lethargic
The things that are stressing you out might make it hard for you to switch off at night, which can leave you feeling tired.
Normally, when you experience stress, your brain releases the hormone cortisol. That quickens your heartbeat and means you have extra energy to deal with the challenge in question. But, if you’re in a state of constant stress then your brain can learn to limit the cortisol levels it releases, which can leave you lethargic.
6. Weight gain
A study by UCL concluded that long-term stress can lead to weight gain over time. The reasons behind this aren’t entirely clear, but some people have pointed towards stress-related binge eating. If you’ve ever realised you’ve munched through a whole family-size bag of Doritos without realising it after a hard day at work (and, let’s be honest, who hasn’t?) then this will probably make a lot of sense to you.
How to recognise stress
It’s all well and good knowing about the consequences of stress, but it’s important to be able to pick up on all the different signs of it, both in yourself and in others, before they become normalised. Here are a few things to look out for.
· Cognitive – these include memory problems, finding it difficult to concentrate, anxiety, only seeing the negative side of things, and poor judgment.
· Physical – these can include a loss of sex drive, always having a cold, a rapid heart rate, nausea, an upset stomach, or general aches and pains.
· Behavioural – changes to eating or sleeping patterns, changes to social life, procrastination, using alcohol or drugs as a crutch.
· Emotional – depression or anxiety, anger, a feeling of overwhelm, loneliness, and general mental health problems.
How to deal with stress
The good news is that dealing with stress isn’t actually all that difficult. It’s all about your mindset. No matter what you’ve got going on (within reason) you can take steps to reduce your stress levels.
The first step is to figure out why you’re feeling this way. If it’s work, then ask yourself if you really need to work quite as much as you do. If there are other things going on, then ask yourself some searching questions to really get to the bottom of it all, so that you can identify what changes you need to or can make in your life so that this stops being such a problem for you.
And, for those inevitable moments when your stress levels soar, here are a few quick ways to bring them back down again.
1. Take slow, deep breaths
When you’re stressed you release adrenaline, which can make you panic. Slow, deep breaths bring those adrenaline levels down, and centre you.
2. Put it into perspective
Ask yourself if it will really matter five years from now.
3. Do some exercise
Much as it might seem like exercise is the last thing you’ve got time for, getting your heart rate up can really help immediately alleviate stress. What’s more, regular exercise can help you better manage your stress levels in general.
4. Take a minute to focus on what’s going well
Sure, some things will always go wrong, but I wouldn’t mind betting that there are also plenty of things going right for you. Take a minute to reflect on them and give yourself credit for them and refuse to allow any bad news to out-weigh them.
5. Stretch out
You know all that tension in your back and shoulders? Stretching can release endorphins and good chemicals that mean your body is able to counter its stress response. Focus your mind on the sensation of stretching to distract yourself from whatever it is that’s causing the stress.
6. Call a friend, or your mum
We’re not all lucky enough to have supportive mums to turn to when we need them, but if you do, then giving her a call could help reduce your levels of cortisol. Failing that, a good friend should work too. Feel free to rant for a bit, but then ask about their day, and allow yourself to be distracted.
7. Have a cup of tea
Did you know that dehydration can cause stress? Sipping on a big mug of herbal tea helps fight that and is very calming in general. There’s a reason your mum always suggested a cup of tea at difficult moments.
Sit down, take a minute to recalibrate whilst you sip, and get things firmly into perspective. Then, go out and take on the world in your new, relaxed state of mind.
Is being stressed your default mode? How do you manage it, minimise it, or banish it all together? I’d love to hear your stress story and your secrets for dealing with it in the comments.