Stress, and how it affects us

I recently asked a group of 40 people at work if they were surprised by a poll that says 22% of people in Ireland are stressed ‘all or most of the time at work’? Interestingly, they were surprised it isn’t higher!

Stress is the epidemic of our time. 75 to 90% of GP visits are stress related.    Too much stress adversely affects everything from our sleep to food habits, alcohol and sugar consumption, our biological age, mental and physical health, our ability to focus and even our relationships – and our joy.   Unaddressed, unhealthy stress can slowly erode productivity, happiness and even take over your life.  

Two clients recently revealed to me how stressed they were when they started meditation. One used to throw up at least once a week and feel nauseous regularly because of crippling anxiety in social situations. Her symptoms are now gone and she is doing things she never expected to do.    The other, a health professional suffered from intermittent heart palpitations as well as teeth grinding, so severe, it caused regular intense jaw pain. After a few months of meditation, they both stopped and she has been pain and palpitation free for the last 3 years and is now focussed on living life.  

We all experience stress. Too much of it adversely affects our body, behaviours and brain. We all know how it affects our body but less about how it affects our brain. Chronic stress has lasting impacts brain-wise and hardwires us to be more stressed over time if we don’t address it. 

Our fight-flight response which prepares us to respond quickly to danger is critical to our survival. When stressed, the fear centre of our brain, called the ‘amygdala’, activates our  ‘stress response system’ which regulates hormones, particularly the stress hormone, cortisol. A rapid increase in our glucose levels,  heart rate, and the blood flow to our muscles in our arms and legs, allows us to respond quickly to any threat. After the threat passes, the system works to return our hormone levels to normal levels. 

When stress is chronic, this system is on high alert all of the time. The same hormones that help us in our ‘flight fight’ response, also create digestive problems, disrupted sleep patterns and a weakened immune system making us more vulnerable to chronic health problems and viruses like the flu. Being on ‘high alert’ all the time can lead to debilitating physical and mental health conditions affecting different people in different ways.  

Stress, fear and daily life 
Stress is part of daily life and comes in a variety of forms. It might result from worrying about a conversation or fitting everything in, because we are afraid we won’t be able to. It might be about money or any decision or action we wish to make. It happens whenever there is a potential threat (fear) that we can either deal (fight) with or avoid (flight). When faced with chronic stress consistently, various research has shown the brain to: 

  1. Change its structure and function making you more vulnerable to mental health problems – those who experience chronic stress when younger are more prone to anxiety and mood disorders in later life 
  2. Reduce in size, and numbers of braincells (both affecting brain power) 
  3. Not work optimally and affect your memory 

If you are consistently stressed, there are many things you can do – exercise, walk, yoga, tai chi,  meditate, laugh, spend time with family and friends and get a massage to name a few.  The main thing is to find a way of relaxing mentally and physically that works for you on a regular basis.