Updated: Apr 22
A recent survey of 2000 British adults by the Stress Management Society revealed that 65% felt more stressed than ever as a result of COVID-19. From the stress of trying to avoid exposure to a deadly virus, to the stress of social isolation, to the stress of grief (either for loved ones or for pre-pandemic life), the past 18 plus months have certainly impacted the health of the population worldwide.
This week (1st – 5th November) is International Stress Awareness Week 2021. First celebrated in 2018 (as an extension of International Stress Awareness Day that had been celebrated in 1998), it’s focus is on the prevention of stress. So let’s have a look at what stress is, how it can show up, and what we can do to manage stress levels when it all gets a bit too much.
What Is Stress?
At its most basic level, stress is a physical response. When our body perceives a threat, it releases a mixture of hormones and chemicals that prepare the body for action. This causes changes that promote blood supply to the muscles, and temporarily curb any non-essential functions that could detract from the need to act quickly. This is usually described as the “fight or flight” response.
Stress gets a bad reputation for always being a bad thing, but actually that is not true. Without it, it is likely that the human race would not have survived. Short-term stress allows us to deal with dangerous or heightened situations (think how much quicker you move when crossing a road and then see a car coming), and for some people it can also make them more productive and creative. Normally once the situation has been dealt with, hormone and chemical levels return to normal, and normal bodily functions resume.
However, when people are exposed to stress on a long-term basis or they become stressed in inappropriate situations, the hormones and chemicals that are released can have a detrimental effect on the body. Let’s look at the body’s response in more detail.
What Happens When We Get Stressed?
When we feel stressed, the hypothalamus communicates to the adrenal glands which then emit the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol – the primary hormones that control the “fight or flight” response. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream and enhances your brain's use of glucose. Cortisol also curbs those non-essential functions – it alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system and the reproductive system.
Long-term effects of adrenaline and cortisol can have significant detrimental effects on a person’s physical and mental health. The figure below from the American Institute of Stress (https://www.stress.org/how-stress-affects-your-body ) shows how long-term stress can impact our health.
It is important to note that people react to chronic stress differently, and changes in the person who is feeling stressed can be a mixture of physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioural. The diagram has covered many of the physical symptoms, but there are other ways it can manifest such as:
· Skin issues
· Frequent colds
· Brain fog and memory issues
· Difficulty concentrating on tasks
· Poor work performance
· Feeling overwhelmed
· Suicidal thoughts and actions
· Isolation from loved ones
· Sleeping too much or not enough
· Increased dependance on alcohol or nicotine to relax
Stress can also directly affect the skin. Cortisol increases the production of sebum in the dermis, and this can lead to blocked pores and acne breakouts. It also curbs the body’s immune system and can lead to skin reactions and increased sensitivity. Stress can also cause inflammation through the gut-skin connection. Stress impacts the balance of bacteria in your gut, which leads to increased inflammation. Internal inflammation can manifest externally as skin conditions like acne, or eczema and psoriasis and rosacea. People with chronic inflammatory skin conditions such as those listed are more sensitive to flare ups when they are stressed.
Tackling Stress For Better Health
Prevention is always better than the cure, and it’s also the theme of the week remember? With chronic stress putting us at risk of so many physical and non-physical health issues, recognising individual stress triggers and adopting healthy practices and positive coping mechanisms can help us be healthier and happier, and it can also save lives.
If you feel that stress is becoming a problem, try to address the issue head on before it consumes you. Consciously try to take measures to address the cause of your stress. Is it something you have some control over? Can you change it? Can you ask for help to change it? For example, if you are in debt, can you ask your bank for assistance with budgeting advice or a temporary reduction on loan payments? Facing the cause of your stress may be difficult to do at first, but ultimately should give you more control. If you are unable to change the cause of your stress, try to take measures to change your exposure to the cause. For example, if you are overly stressed about the pandemic, avoid watching the news for a few days. You cannot change what is happening in the world, but limiting your exposure to it can help you regain a sense of control over your own personal health.
Stress Management Tips
Stress management should be viewed in a holistic way. Stress affects us physically and mentally, and so we should try to ensure that we keep both our body and mind in good shape to be able to cope effectively. Try adding some of the following into your daily routine and see how your ability to cope with stress improves:
Get a good nights’ sleep
Maintain strong relationships with family and friends - discuss your feelings with them
Change your mindset - use verbal affirmations to tell yourself you have control and are strong, think positively
Eat a healthy, varied diet, take dietary supplements if required
Stay hydrated – avoid caffeine
Limit or cut out alcohol
Limit or cut out nicotine
Make time for yourself and your hobbies – read a book or listen to music
Exercise several times per week
Practice relaxation techniques – meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises
Limit exposure to social media or media coverage that makes you feel negative or stressed
· Access resources from charity organisations
· Seek medical help if you feel your mental or physical health is suffering
And always remember, other people may be experiencing stressful situations that we may or may not be aware of. If you think someone you know might be struggling, for example by recognising symptoms they are displaying, reach out to them in a meaningful way. Phone them for a chat, or suggest meeting up for a walk or some exercise. It may help that person more than you could imagine, and is likely to improve your wellbeing too.