Long-term stress is distressing and can lead to various mental, emotional, and physical health problems. These include anxiety, depression, substance misuse, sleep issues, pain, and physical symptoms like muscle tension.
On the occasion of National Stress Awareness Day, mental health expert Noel McDermott delves into the profound effects of stress on the human body and shares insights on how to navigate and manage anxiety more effectively.
A snapshot of stress in the UK
An alarming 74% of UK adults confessed to feeling so stressed in the past year that they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. Furthermore, daily stress is a reality for 7% of UK adults. Notably, a significant 20% of UK residents experience stress on more days in a month than they don’t. Among these individuals, 51% reported feelings of depression, and 61% indicated they felt anxious.
Noel McDermott, a seasoned psychotherapist, explained: “Stress is a natural physiological response signalling us to act, while relaxation is its counterpart, allowing us to recover post-action. A balance between the two is vital.” Drawing from polyvagal theory, McDermott highlights the dual nervous system responses: sympathetic (activated) and parasympathetic (relaxed). Excessive or prolonged stress can lead to a state of overwhelm. Furthermore, stress stimulates the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, linked to the fight-flight-freeze responses. An overabundance of these hormones, resulting from sudden emergencies or constant pressure, can shift us from beneficial action to detrimental reaction.
The far-reaching consequences of chronic stress
Extended exposure to stress, especially cortisol, can give rise to severe psychiatric disorders, including psychosis. Identical twin studies demonstrate that stress management can determine whether or not one develops a mental illness. Moreover, stress-induced responses, like inflammation, degrade the immune system, thereby predisposing individuals to various biological illnesses. Physical manifestations of stress include muscle aches, gastrointestinal problems, skin conditions, and disruptions in sleep and appetite.
Gender plays a role in how stress is perceived, manifested, and managed. While women often present with prevalent mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, men tend to exhibit severe mental disorders and suicidal tendencies. Furthermore, men are more likely to resort to alcohol, drugs, anger, or aggression under stress, whereas women typically seek help and express their psychological distress more openly.
Physiological responses to stress
When faced with stress, our body undergoes several physical reactions:
- Accelerated heart rate
- Changes in breathing patterns
- Muscle tightening
- Dry mouth
- Temperature fluctuations in hands and feet
Effective strategies to combat stress
To navigate the labyrinth of stress, consider the following do’s and don’ts:
- Recognise stress signals and act promptly.
- Discuss your feelings with friends, family, or colleagues.
- Engage in social activities.
- Adopt psychological coping strategies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy techniques.
- Prioritise balanced nutrition and hydration.
- Engage in regular exercise, preferably outdoors or in group settings.
- Practise mindfulness and meditation.
- Familiarise yourself with common stressors and work towards minimising their negative impact.
- Enhance your sleep hygiene.
- Rely on alcohol or drugs
- Isolate yourself
- Resort to overeating or extreme dieting
- Indulge in retail therapy or excessive consumerism
Noel McDermott is a distinguished psychotherapist and dramatherapist with a rich experience spanning over three decades across the health, social care, education, and criminal justice sectors. His enterprise, Mental Health Works, offers bespoke mental health services to the public and other organisations.