Much has been written about stress and the connection with our mental wellbeing. The increased focus on mental health in recent years has meant that the stigma attached to poor mental illnesses is steadily decreasing. And at the same time, we are also learning and accepting that a lot of factors can impact our mental health. These include, for example, the food we eat, the amount of sleep we have (or don’t have), and how much we exercise or move our bodies. And, of course, we know that stress is also a major contributor. But how equipped are we at understanding the physical effects of stress?
What is stress?
So what is stress exactly? The word stress can have negative connotations, and often, when we think of someone being stressed, we think of someone who is not coping.
I recently came across the phrase ‘life load’, which was mentioned in this episode of the Feel Better, Live More podcast. Talking about ‘life load’ to me simply means acknowledging that we all live very full-on lives. And the sheer amount of activities and tasks we juggle every day can create stress. But feeling and experiencing stress doesn’t necessarily mean that we are not coping.
In fact, we can feel stressed in the moment and cope perfectly fine on a daily basis. But in the long run, if we don’t manage the stress that results from this ‘life load’ in the right way, it can take its toll on our health. In other words, if we don’t get enough respite or rest from the stress, we can get physically ill.
Stress and chronic conditions
What a lot of people may not realise is how much of an impact stress has on our physical health. Stress is a major contributor to most chronic conditions. And even when it’s not one of the root causes, it definitely has a detrimental effect on the management and improvement of these conditions.
Personally, I know that stress has had a massive impact on my own health. My Rheumatoid Arthritis diagnosis came at the back of a very stressful year. And it’s no coincidence that my last major flare also followed a really stressful period.
Stress isn’t all bad
Stress in itself isn’t bad though. It’s a natural response to external factors that’s been protecting human beings since the beginning of time. If you want to know more, I wrote about stress and how it works in the post: Can a Paleo diet successfully support people with chronic autoimmune conditions?
Because stress carries such a strong negative connotation, we forget that stress can be positive. It can drive us to perform better. It’s not unusual for athletes, for example, to achieve personal bests (or even world records!) during competition rather than training. Stress is what can allow us to perform really well during a work presentation or an exam.
When we experience stress, our body shuts down all non-essential systems and functions, and we get into ‘survival’ or ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. Additional blood is directed towards our muscles, so they can receive the extra oxygen they need to ‘perform’ and better cardiovascular function can be guaranteed. That way, we’re able to fully focus on the task on had and literally give it our all. This is a completely normal mechanism, and the body is not functioning abnormally when doing all this.
But what happens when we spend most of our days (and weeks and months) in a state of stress?
Chronic stress negatively impacts our physical health
While stress in itself isn’t necessarily a problem, chronic stress is.
When our bodies experience stress and stay stuck in fight-or-flight mode for long periods of time, various systems are negatively impacted. For example:
- Our digestive system slows down. (Constipation or heartburn, anyone?)
- Our reproductive system won’t work as well. (Could chronic stress be the cause of a lot of the unexplained infertility issues that a lot of couples are sadly experiencing over recent years?)
- Also, our endocrine system will be disrupted. And because of this, we can experience hormonal imbalances like Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) or painful periods.
- Our immune system is weakened. And no one needs a weak immune system which leaves up open to exposed to frequent colds and infections, do they?
But unfortunately, that’s not all.
Stress will also compound other physical issues
These can include:
- A ‘leaky gut’. This means that foreign bodies coming from the gastrointestinal tract regularly ‘leak’ into our bloodstream. As a result, our immune system is constantly switched on and busy reacting to these foreign bodies.
- Disrupted sleep. Regular, good-quality sleep is crucial to immune and overall health. So reduced, interrupted or bad-quality sleep isn’t doing us any favours.
- Increased insulin resistance. This means we will crave more sugar and sweet foods, which, as we know, aren’t great for our health at all.
Because of the greater impact that chronic stress can have on our bodies and our physical health, it’s important that stress is managed and reduced. And while this is true for each and every one of us, reducing stress becomes paramount in the context of managing a chronic condition – certainly in the context of autoimmune diseases but of others as well, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, etc.
So how do we manage and reduce stress when our ‘life load’ continues to be so high?
Identify the stressors in your life
The first step to successful management (and reduction) of stress is to identify what causes the stress. So what are the actual stress sources or triggers (or stressors) in your life? While these can vary depending on your individual lifestyle and circumstances, stressors can broadly be grouped into the following four categories:
- Physical. These include injury and infection, for example, but also exercise that is too intense and not having enough sleep.
- Sensory. Loud noises, bright lights, overcrowding, etc. can all be stressors.
- Chemicals. These include the toxins we put in our bodies (voluntarily or otherwise), like alcohol, drugs, allergens, etc.
- Psychological. A lot falls under this category – deadlines, exams, competitions, traffic, bills, and general ‘life load’.
More often than not, we’ll have more than one stressor creating havoc in our bodies at any one time. In fact, some of the stressors can then trigger others. For example, one evening we may choose to work late to meet an important deadline. In turn, that stops us from getting a good night’s sleep, which means that the next day we’ll be relying on more caffeine, more sugary food (and carbs!), and introduce more toxins into our body. And so the cycle continues…
If you’ve ever tried to manage the stressors in your life, you’ll know that reducing stress is certainly easier said than done! But with the right information, motivation, and support reducing stress is possible!
We may need to start by asking ourselves some basic questions about the way we do things and accepting that it may be time to make some tweaks. Here are a few things you may want to consider if you feel that stress may be impacting your physical health.
- Asking for help.
- Saying no.
- Getting clarity on your priorities and goals.
- Looking at and re-evaluating your relationships – are you surrounding yourself with people who bring you joy, lift you up, and support you?
- Assessing your work and lifestyle – is your job ‘working for you’ right now? Or are you working in a stressful environment that isn’t supporting your emotional and physical wellbeing?
Reducing the impact of stress
Unfortunately, while we may be able to identify them, not all stressors can be successfully managed or eliminated. So it’s important that we consider taking positive action towards reducing the physiological burden that stress places on our bodies.
Some examples of how we may do this are:
- Exercising or moving our bodies.
- Spending time outdoors and in nature.
- Socialising and connecting with friends and family.
- Protecting our bedtime to ensure optimal sleep.
- Improving our nutrition.
In order to help our bodies better cope with stress, it’s also important that we build our resilience to stress and find a balance that works for us. We may never get rid of stress altogether (nor we should want to). But we definitely need to to learn and employ strategies that can help us cope with the situation at hand, as this can considerably reduce the amount of stress we experience on a daily basis.
Some of the things I find have helped me or my clients include:
- Changing and re-framing your own perspective or mindset.
- Practising mindfulness.
- Practising gratitude. Personally, I have started a gratitude journal, and this helps me enormously with stress.
- Finding joy. I’ve recently come across the term ‘Vitamin J’, for Joy, which I thought was lovely. Because when the going gets tough, having some joy in your life can really help.
- Finding a hobby that helps you ‘disconnect’ from the day-to-day. Reading, knitting, drawing, or playing an instrument are just some examples that come to mind, but the possibilities are endless!
Do you need help with the physical effects of stress in your life?
Re-evaluating your lifestyle choices and habits can be challenging, and it’s not something that a lot of people (myself included) find easy to do on their own. So if you feel you may need a little extra support and accountability, know that you shouldn’t expect to do it all on your own! (Did I tell you that I have my own health coach?!).
Nutrition is only one of the aspects I help my clients with. My aim is to help you live and feel well, and that can only be done when we look at your lifestyle more holistically. Stress is a big part of the puzzle, and I’d be honoured to be able to help you identify and adopt strategies that work for you. If you’d like to find out more about how you could benefit from working together, you can book a complimentary 20-minute call with me.