How stress affects your health

27 January 2021

Is stress affecting your health? We look at what stress does to the body and how it impacts your health, plus what you can do to avoid getting too stressed.



Stress is bad for you. We know it and tell ourselves that we'll deal with it, later. But we've got some very good reasons for dealing with it now (apart from improving your health and reducing your risk of a range of diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes). Stress is bad for your body in lots of ways - makes you gain or lose weight, it can make you flatulent and flatten your sex drive. Still want to deal with it later?

We just weren’t designed to cope with stress long-term. The human body’s response to danger works well when we spot something big and scary coming our way. The alarm bells go off and the ‘fight or flight’ system kicks in, releasing stress hormones, among them adrenaline and cortisol. Between them they increase the heart rate, raise the blood pressure, boost energy supplies to our bloodstream and increase the substances that repair tissues.

How stress impacts your health

There’s a long list of health problems that can be caused by stress. These include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Raised heart rate and breathing
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Tiredness
  • Pain around the body, especially neck and back
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Stomach ache
  • Indigestion
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Passing wind a lot
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Gritting your teeth (which can also cause jaw pain)
  • Being constipated or having diarrhoea
  • Panic attacks
  • Developing rashes

These are some of the symptoms of stress. Unfortunately, we can be so stressed that we can’t always see the connection between what’s going on in our minds and our physical symptoms.

Stress can come from many sources – family, friends, neighbours, money, loneliness, grief, your work or volunteering – problems and situations that can affect us all.

What happens when your body is stressed

You may have heard of the fight or flight mechanism. We all have this - it dates back to our ancient ancestors who often had to fight or run to keep attackers at bay, or to hunt wild animals, and to stay alive. This is your body’s way of getting you out of danger. When we are stressed our bodies release high levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which activates our sympathetic nervous system.

Cortisol has some other interesting effects on the human body. It reduces the functions not necessary in that situation, changes our immune system responses and dampens down the systems we don’t need when we’re running for our lives – our immune, digestive and reproductive systems and growth processes.

Once the danger has passed, the stress hormone levels decrease, and everything gets back to normal. Which is fine, as long as the danger passes.

When we’re under pressure all the time – at work, at home, financially and in our relationships – those stress hormones stay raised, causing long-term damage to our health, and some unpleasant symptoms.

You can see that the body’s behaving logically. In a stressful situation, it’s doing everything it can to save our lives. In a real life or death situation it’s a brilliant mechanism. But these hormones are only supposed to be used for a few minutes. If we’re living like that day in and day out, it’s not healthy. And we live with the consequences. One of which, is getting fatter without eating more.

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Stress-related weight fluctuations

The stress hormone cortisol layers fat around your middle of your body. It’s almost like a protective cushion. The body stores fat here because it’s near the liver and the major arteries, and close at hand if you need that extra energy supply quickly. It’s your safety net, but if you’re constantly stressed this goes on and on, with your body getting the message to store fat because there’s a crisis. So you can be eating the same amount, but putting on weight. Stress also affects your thyroid function, and slows your metabolism down, adding to your weight problem.

Unfortunately, if you respond to stress in this way, you’ll be putting on weight where you least want it. Weight stored around your middle puts you at increased risk of breast cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

However, not everyone reacts like this. Some people lose their appetite and lose weight, even becoming underweight, which also has consequences for your long-term health.

Stress-related gas and IBS

Stress hormones can create an inflammatory response, that can affect anywhere in the body, from pains in your joints or muscles, to your gut itself, causing Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The irritation can make it feel as though you want to go to the toilet, especially if you’re nervous before an event. It’s why, when people are really scared, they open their bowels.

Add to that the body’s instant reaction to stress, which is to shut down the digestive system. The result is that your food isn’t digested properly. And the result of that can be bloating, flatulence and IBS. Less obvious, but every bit as important, are the effects on our health from not absorbing nutrients properly.

Sitting calmly and eating slowly, even if it’s only for ten minutes in the middle of the day, is really important. Rushing around, fast food and eating on the go isn’t good for your digestion or for your health. If you aren’t getting the goodness from your food that you need, it has a knock-on effect on your health.

Stress-related loss of libido

To add insult to injury, high levels of stress knock your sex drive for six, in the process probably adding to your reasons for feeling stressed. Stress affects your hormones, reducing your levels of testosterone, and your sex drive. It even affects the quantity and quality of your sperm. This happens anyway as we get older, but stress compounds the effect.

Men aren’t the only ones affected. Women produce testosterone too, from the ovaries, and also male hormones from the adrenal glands. And just like men, women lose their libido when the pressure is on.

These aren’t the only obvious signs that your body is reacting to an overload of pressure. Strange aches and pains, trouble sleeping, a daisy-chain of infections one after the other, hair loss and rashes are all signs that it’s time to face up to your stress.

How stress causes pain

It may be that you’ve slept in an awkward position, or strained your back by lifting something heavy. But the cause of your pain may have started in your head, as stress – and if that’s the case, it’s probably going to take more than just painkillers to make you feel better.

When people are stressed they tend to hunch their shoulders, tuck their head down, and almost roll forwards a little bit, which puts you in a poor postural position. The result of over-using your neck muscles like this, is that they tighten up, and cause neck and back pain.

You’ll often adopt a quicker, shallow breath as you get stressed, and that has an effect on your musculo-skeletal system. As well as over-using your neck muscles, you tend to under-use your diaphragm, so you get stiffness in your ribs and upper back.

And some of the other conditions caused by pain – depression for instance – can actually make your existing pain worse, creating a cycle of pain. This is because stress makes the nervous system more active, which makes us feel pain more. If you're experiencing pain in multiple parts of the body, such as hips, back, neck and elbows, chances are you could be under a lot of psychological stress.

If left untreated, the pain and the stress that has caused it may well become worse. Finding the source of the stress is an important first step, as you can then look at ways of dealing with cause of your pain

How to reduce your stress levels

When you have too many balls in the air at one time, stress is the outcome. It often shows in a change of behaviour, someone who is normally outgoing becoming withdrawn, for instance, or an easy-going person becoming irritable.

It’s often the things you have no control over that can make you stressed. When a family member has to go into hospital, for instance. And if stress is long-running, it can take its toll.

The important thing is to recognise your own symptoms. Self-awareness is important. Some people know that if they come out in a rash, or their psoriasis flares up, it's because they're stressed. Too often we ignore the symptoms, and work through them. You need to step back, take stock of your lifestyle, and the number of balls you have up in the air. 'What's happening in my life?' is the question you need to ask yourself, rather than 'Why is my body out of balance?'

Regaining some control of your situation goes a long way towards reducing your stress levels. If you’ve got too much on your plate, don’t let embarrassment stop you asking for help. Talk to your family and friends and see if anyone can take on some of your load. Say no, nicely, to people who ask you to take on more tasks. And see your GP, sooner rather than later.

Talking your problem through with someone close to you can be helpful. This may help you to see the problem from a different perspective, and to find a way of reducing your stress levels. Also, talk to your doctor – they will have seen many other patients struggling with stress-related pain. Your GP may recommend Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – as this is often prescribed for people who have chronic pain, and gentle exercise, such as swimming, as this also helps.

Make sure you keep in touch with family and friends, try to do something you enjoy every day, and keep as active and social as you can.

Self-help tips for stress

  • Eat well, and make sure you have a healthy, balanced diet with at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, wholegrains, low-fat protein, and not too much salt, sugar and stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol.
  • Get enough sleep. Most of us need about seven hours a night. Make your bedroom a restful place (no work or TV), and keep to the same bedtime and waking hours, seven days a week.
  • Exercise every day. It's important for your physical health, and exercise is also recognised as being good for relieving stress and depression. Aim for at least 30 minutes moderate exercise on at least five days a week. You can break this up into two lots of 15 minutes or three lots of 10 minutes. Go with a friend and build in some social life too.
  • Relax. Yoga, Pilates, meditation, mindfulness and deep-breathing exercises all help to relieve stress and help you feel relaxed and peaceful. Find a relaxation technique that works for you and do it regularly.
  • Smile. When you smile you release feelgood hormones that make you feel happier. Laughing works too.
  • See your friends, and talk to them about how you're feeling. Just having a sympathetic ear can make a huge difference to how you feel.

Exercises to beat everyday stress

Pilates

Developed by German-born Joseph Pilates, who believed mental and physical health were closely connected, Pilates can restore a sense of wellbeing and reduce stress.

As well as building strength, with a particular emphasis on the body’s core, and improving flexibility, Pilates can improve posture, muscle tone, balance and joint mobility, and the deep breathing involved can also relieve stress and tension.

Regarded as a mindful form of exercise, you focus on each movement with intention and awareness.

Mini trampoline

Bouncing on a mini trampoline or rebounder is a great way to keep in shape, providing an effective cardiovascular routine and helping to build strength and balance.

This low-impact exercise provides all the health benefits of traditional exercise but without the stress on joints and muscles. The simplicity of the exercise is part of its appeal.

And, as with other cardio exercise, you will be reducing the stress hormone levels in your body, including cortisol and adrenaline, too, while getting a natural high from the rush of endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that are released as you jump.

Dance

There’s something so liberating about dancing; no wonder it’s good for relieving stress. Dancing releases neurotransmitters, the chemicals within the brain that communicate messages through the body, as well as endorphins, the body’s natural painkiller.

But perhaps the best part about dancing is that it offers a creative outlet for us to express ourselves through our bodies. In today’s busy world many of us disconnect our heads from our bodies, and dance is a perfect way to live more in the moment.

Check out your Zumba, based on Latin dance; it is a highly effective way to stay fit and have a lot of fun.

Tai chi

For a gentle way to relieve stress and anxiety, the ancient Chinese tradition of tai chi is worth considering.

Originally developed for self-defence, this graceful form of exercise has been taken up across the globe and groups of 50+ enthusiasts have become a familiar sight in urban and city parks enjoying an early morning workout.

A self-paced system of gentle physical exercise and stretching, it involves a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner, accompanied by deep breathing and is said to help relieve stress and a number of other health conditions.

If you haven’t exercised for some time, tai chi is low impact and puts minimal stress on muscles and joints.

Cycling

The physical health benefits of cycling are well known, but the benefits to the brain are equally impressive. It is understood that practising a motor skill, such as repeatedly punching in karate, or pedalling a bike, can improve the performance of white matter, the tissue found mostly beneath the brain’s surface that connects different parts of the brain.

A breakdown in this system is linked to slow thinking and can lead to other cognitive deficits. Numerous studies also suggest cycling relieves stress and anxiety, particularly when cycling outdoors in natural surroundings.

Water aerobics

Aerobic exercise is known for reducing the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, but for those who are not keen on the idea of regular gym-based workouts, exercising in water can offer a great way to stay in shape as well as providing the same calming effect for our minds.

The water offers resistance and buoyancy that helps strengthen muscles, improve flexibility, and correct posture, as well as lowering blood pressure. And the calming effect of water on our bodies extends to our minds as well.

Water aerobics is particularly helpful for anyone with injuries in the muscle, tendon or bone.

Strength training

The benefits of strength training (also called resistance training) on our bodies are well documented.

As we age, we start to lose muscle mass, and strengthening our muscles will not only make us stronger, but can increase bone mass, lower blood sugar and improve balance and posture. Surprisingly, it’s also good for reducing stress.

The psychological benefits, the positive feelings that come with feeling stronger in your body, can filter out to make you feel stronger in other areas of your life. Strength training can also help to relieve any extra tension in your body, helping you to feel more relaxed. Newbies can begin by strengthening their legs, arms and trunk muscles for 20-30 minutes two to three times a week.

Dealing with holiday stress

Switching off and getting into 'holiday mode' can be easier said than done. Here are some useful tips on how to beat holiday stress.

Plan ahead

If you are holidaying with fellow travellers, discuss in advance what each of you expects in terms of rest time and activities.

Planning accordingly will avoid any disputes whilst away and will give you a chance to schedule any fun activities or reserve tables at popular restaurants to avoid disappointment.

Plan some unscheduled time

It's important to plan time where you simply kick back and relax. Whether alone, or in a group/couple, it is an opportunity to unwind.

Budget in advance

Get a clear view of your holiday budget in advance. It will help reduce anxiety when it comes to this issue and allows you to plan ahead.

Sort out the insurance

Ensuring you have the correct health and travel insurance in place will give you peace of mind should anything happen.

Plan some entertainment

Long journeys can be a stressful and tedious time. Make sure you have packed your favourite book/crossword puzzle/magazine in your hand luggage and the time will go in a flash.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.