April is National stress awareness month.
The word “Stress” is quite possibly one of the most used words in the English vocabulary, especially within the developed world.
My clinics are based in Central London and the City of London, where stress seems to be the key driver for people to reach out for regular treatments to help manage their stress. There is equally an increase in the numbers of people doing yoga, pilates, meditation and mindfulness all for the same reasons.
In 2018 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK published their annual statistics about work related stress depression or anxiety in Great Britain.
In this publication it showed that a staggering 15.4 million working days was lost due to work related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017-2018 (Labour force survey LFS).
They also state that in 2017/2018 stress depression or anxiety accounted for 44% of all work related ill health cases and 57% of all working days lost due to ill health.
The main work factors that increased work related stress that the participants of the research stated included
- workload pressures
- tight deadlines
- too much responsibility
- lack of managerial support
Also published in 2018, the charity Mental Health Foundation commissioned a UK wide research project about stress.
4,619 people were surveyed across the country, and it showed that an alarming 32% of people had experienced suicidal thoughts or feelings because of stress and 1/6 of people had self-harmed due to stress.
The research also found:
- 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope
- 81% of women said this compared to 67 percent of men
- 83% of 18-24 year-olds said this compared to 65 percent of people aged 55 and over
Mental Health Foundation Director Isabella Goldie said:
"Millions of us around the UK are experiencing high levels of stress and it is damaging our health. Stress is one of the great public health challenges of our time, but it still isn't being taken as seriously as physical health concerns.
"Stress is a significant factor in mental health problems including anxiety and depression. It is also linked to physical health problems like heart disease, problems with our immune system, insomnia and digestive problems.
"Individually we need to understand what is causing us personal stress and learn what steps we can take to reduce it for ourselves and those around us.
"We also need to change at a societal level. This includes ensuring that employers treat stress and mental health problems as seriously as physical safety.
"We are also asking for well-being days to be provided to public sector workers as part of reducing the pressure on those who work hardest to look after us."
UK survey: Total sample size was 4619 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 29th March - 20th April 2018. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+). (YouGov)
What is Stress?
The stress response is a big chemical and nervous response within our body and is a crucial survival mechanism.
We respond to stress with the fight or flight response. This helps us to survive, to get out of danger.
Some short term stress can be good for us – it helps us run from danger or fight it and in modern days, to raise our performance.
Long-term stress, however, is problematic. It means that we remain pumped up with high cortisol levels and there is no period of relief / release / celebration. In modern life we tend to move on to the next stressful situation. We take coffee and stimulants to keep us going, and this leads to a vicious circle.
Biologically when we are exposed to stressful situation there are 2 hormones that are produced by the body - the “Fight or Flight” hormone adrenaline, along with cortisol. These hormones are crucial in our biological make up to keep our reflexes working well so that we can fight the stress or run away from it.
Types of Stress
There are 2 types of stress: acute stress and chronic stress.
Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat, commonly known as the fight or flight response. The threat can be any situation that is experienced, even subconsciously or falsely, as a danger.
Common acute stressors include:
- Imagining a threat or remembering a dangerous event
Under most circumstances, once the acute threat has passed, the response becomes inactivated and levels of stress hormones return to normal, a condition called the relaxation response.
Under Chronic Stress modern life poses on-going stressful situations that are not short-lived and the urge to act (to fight or to flee) must be suppressed. Stress then becomes chronic.
Common chronic stressors include:
- on-going highly pressured work
- long-term relationship problems
- persistent financial worries
- Moving house or changing jobs
The stress hormones are only supposed to be around in our bodies for a short period of time as they should be used up when the “risk” to us is removed. However, for most people exposed to daily stress this does not occur, and the hormones remain in the body for too long. This is what causes the long term problems to our health.
So what actually happens?
Imagine that you are faced with a giant angry alien (for our example), this is your stressor. You now have the chance to fight or flee.
Your brain registers the threat and sets about several body responses to prepare you for either reaction.
Internally the adrenal glands (small things found above each kidney) produce adrenaline and cortisol. These 2 hormones are transported in the blood around the body to induce the necessary changes, including:
- Diverting energy and blood to the muscles in legs and arms, necessary to build them up to run or fight
- Increasing heart rate to increase oxygen in take
- Increased breathing, to get lungs to take in more oxygen and remove carbon dioxide as fast as possible
- Raise clotting factor in the blood in case there is an injury that needs healing while fighting or running
- More glucose released into the blood as fast nutrition for the short term energy burst
- Sweating increases to cool body down and remove waste
- Main digestive system reduced as brain doesn't see it as essential at this time of emergency, it can re-start once the stressor has gone
- Same goes for the reproductive system
When the hormones are released it draws the blood away from our organs and diverts it to the muscles and to the heart so that we have a short burst for fighting or running.
This is fine short term during what could be a fast lived emergency, however over a long period of time these changes causes our heart to work harder, the breathing becomes rapid and shallow, and the digestive and excretory organs suffer from the lack of blood. The clotting factor of the blood is also increased, which makes the blood much thicker and prone to clotting, ok short term but long term increased risk of strokes and heart attacks. This fight or flight response wasn't designed to be active long term.
Over a longer time the stress may be the cause of:
- High Blood Pressure
- Stomach Ulcers
- Muscle pain and fatigue
- Emotional problems
- Hormone imbalances
- Fertility issues
- Reduced immunity – more prone to infections
- Heart disease and strokes
- Insomnia and sleeping disorders
- IBS and other digestive conditions
- Reduced concentration and memory
- Dry mouth
Supporting your emotional balance
There is no instant cure – but many things can help to support our bodies through times of stress.
There is no one single magic pill or herb which will “cure” stress, but for some people key prescribed pharmaceutical medications can help during a particularly bad time.
Ultimately, lifestyle changes may be needed to remove / alleviate the causes of stress with long term stress management plans.
Acknowledge the signs - Cortisol makes us impatient and irritable. Stress affects us all differently and so take time out to think about how stress makes you feel and how it affects your body and mood.
Then change habits.
You may need to make lifestyle changes to remove some of the causes of stress, or to change the way you are responding to situations e.g. not always reaching for a coffee / cigarette / bar of chocolate to help you. Changing habits is never easy!
Consider seeing a professional for advice.
Natural remedies can be very helpful for immediate, short-term stresses. Longer term or multi-factorial factors can be harder to unravel, but there are remedies to support people suffering from stress whilst they come to understand those factors.
Supporting your spiritual self
Think about the following:
- What did you enjoy doing as a child? Is there something you could restart?
- Be prepared to change
- Ask yourself: Is there something you think you could change or need to change?
- Do something creative - this could be painting/drawing, gardening, cooking/baking, sewing/knitting - anything creative.
- Meditation - A study carried out in Massachusetts showed amazing results with a reduction in illness levels (including chronic illness) and life expectancy in those who meditated regularly. They also scored higher on emotional well-being tests. There are many types of meditation – find one that suits you, there are lots of people teaching meditation and there are even good online apps that you can carry around with you.
All content within Calm and Clear Complementary Therapies is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. Calm and Clear Complementary Therapies and Rima Shah are not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made by a user based on the content of the Calm and Clear Complementary Therapies website or blog. Calm and Clear Complementary Therapies is not liable for the contents of any external internet sites listed, nor does it endorse any commercial product or service mentioned or advised on any of the sites. for more information. Always consult your own GP if you’re in any way concerned about your health.