The effects of stress on your body
We delve into what stress is and how to deal with it
A big exam or work presentation. Balancing the mortgage repayments and bills. Finding time to spend with the family, head to the gym, keep the house in order and see your friends.
Very few of us manage to navigate life without feeling any stress and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Small bursts of stress can improve performance and boost your memory; however, chronic stress not only impacts your mental wellbeing, but your body too.
All of us are different when it comes to stress and how we react is influenced by a combination of genetics and life experience. That said, there are certainly universal stressors – think significant life events such as marriage, divorce, having children, moving house or changing jobs. Work is another common cause of stress, as are financial issues and illness.
The physical effects of stress
On the surface, the signs of stress can include an increase in heart and breathing rates, dilated pupils and tensed muscles. Under the skin, the signs can take a little longer to notice, especially when your stress is chronic. They can include trouble concentrating for long periods of time, weight fluctuations, stomach upsets, mood changes, struggle with sleep or feeling constantly restless. Some people also notice skin breakouts or even eczema flare-ups at stressful times.
These reactions are all down to what’s going on in our body when we become stressed. Essentially, our body kicks off the same chain of events as when we are faced with danger. More specifically, the team at the Mayo Clinic explain that stress sets off an alarm in your brain which triggers a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
This adrenaline is responsible for the increase in your heart rate and elevated blood pressure, which gives your body the push your brain perceives you need to take flight or face up to your foe. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain's use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Cortisol also halts any bodily functions not essential to the fight or flight process – which is why we often lose our appetite when we’re under stress. Studies have also shown chronic stress can trigger an immune response and increase inflammation. Unfortunately, inflammation is linked to a range of physical diseases, including cardiovascular disease, thyroid disease and diabetes.
The mental effects of stress
Untreated chronic stress can lead to anxiety disorders or depression, according to psychologist Dr Marny Lishman. Dr Lishman explains that if the brain is perceiving a threat day in and day out, all the functions of the body are turned on as though the person is under attack constantly – including a focus on the problem over everything else, worry, panic and avoidance.
Likewise, everything secondary to survival turns down – so problem-solving, decision making, being social and your concentration levels at work are all on the decline.
“The social impact of living this way can lead to further mental health issues as we underperform and socialise less,” Dr Lishman says.
It goes without saying that obvious stressors should be removed or managed as best as possible – think setting boundaries on checking work emails, investing time and effort into the relationships that boost our lives and spending less on those that cause stress.
But the reality for many of us is that not all stress can or should be completely avoided, so we need to develop solid stress management skills.
Learning and practising self-awareness is key to tackling ongoing stress. Dr Lishman recommends learning to recognise the signals your body sends out when it feels as though it’s under attack; over time, you can build a picture of what your triggers are. From here, she recommends using a raft of tools to minimise the damage stress can cause, including:
Practising deep breathing
This turns off the physical stress response and turns on the relaxation response. Breathe in for a full count of five to 10 seconds and out for a count of 10, focussing on your diaphragm. To help you get started, here are three ways to improve your mental wellbeing in under five minutes.
Put effort into socialising and doing things just for fun
Connecting and having fun with others releases endorphins (feel-good chemicals that can balance out stress chemicals). We all know the importance of prioritising ‘down time’ to rest and relax, but being around others is equally important.
Working out doesn’t have to be something you dread. If going for a run or joining a class isn’t for you, try pumping some tunes and work up a sweat dancing, or head to the local tennis court for a hit. Struggling to find the time to exercise? This 10-minute workout is short, sharp and super effective.
Are you concerned about your stress levels? We asked our mental health nurse to put together some free resources that can help. Check out our article on 6 ways to get help for mental health – without having to pay a thing!
If you or someone you know needs help, please call:
Lifeline 13 11 14
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800