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Stress: the silent threat to our health

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

Stress is one of the biggest risks to health that we face today, but in my opinion, we still hugely underestimate its impact. With 60-80% of GP appointments in some way related to stress, it’s clear that it is relevant to us all, but are we connecting the symptoms we feel, with stress as the underlying cause?(1) Are our doctors talking to us about stress, or simply treating the symptoms they see?

I believe that psychological and physical stress played a significant role in me becoming chronically unwell 18 months ago, but I only got to this conclusion by putting together the opinions of many different health professionals and doing a lot of my own research. The doctors I saw were on the whole, supportive, but they treated my symptoms, not the underlying cause of my illness. I now feel extremely passionate about raising awareness of the impact of stress, in order to help others avoid the traps that I fell into and to find ways to manage their stress before it is too late for their health.

To start, I’d like to take you back to why our stress response evolved with this explanation from the Nelson Centre

"Flashback 200,000 years to an ancestor of modern man, living as a hunter-gatherer in a world where the threat of becoming prey was a legitimate concern. Just as he had done a hundred times before, he sat near the watering hole, enjoying some of the berries he had recently picked. All of a sudden, he heard a rustle in the brush nearby and looked over to see the unmistakable form of a saber-toothed tiger about to pounce. In order to live to tell the tale, he would have to be able to rapidly switch from a state of “resting and digesting” to one of “fighting or fleeing.” Once the threat was over, he’d revert back to the “rest and digest” state, where he’d remain until the next threat appeared, which may be days or weeks or even months from that moment.”

So, our stress response was evolved for good reason, as a survival mechanism to enable us to fight or flee when in danger. Today, we are no longer in danger from a tiger attack. In many parts of the world we are also not in the kind of danger that the 20th Century world wars brought to our parents, grandparents and great grandparents. In comparison, life seems pretty good right?

Unfortunately, the problem we face today is that unlike our ancestors and grandparents, we are faced with continuous, low-level stressors that are driving us into a chronic state of 'fight or flight'. Today's stressors are often psychological, from the never ending to-do list to the 24 hour mobile phone alerts. However, they are also physical - the processed food we eat and the toxins we are exposed to damage our gut, and when our gut is damaged it can send signals to our brain to activate the stress response(2).

Because the bodies' stress response is automatic, most of the time we don’t even know it is happening. This lack of awareness means we are unlikely to be taking the necessary action to take care of ourselves and flip our bodies back from 'fight or flight' into 'rest and digest'. We may not have considered what taking care of ourselves looks like, or perhaps we brush it off as something we don’t have time for. But this is something we all need to pay attention to, as the evidence is clear - chronic stress is leading to devastating outcomes for our health.

The effect of stress on our bodies

When the body senses danger, it activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is the side of our autonomic nervous system responsible for the flight or flight response. This neural pathway releases a surge of adrenaline for energy, it makes the heart rate soar in order to take blood to the brain for alertness, and it directs blood to the muscles to get them ready for speed or combat. It then activates a hormone called cortisol which drives glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream to utilise more fuel for energy and provide tissue repair in case it is needed for injury. Cortisol also switches off the bodily functions that are not needed for fight or flight, such as digestion, reproduction, learning and memory.(3)

It is perhaps no surprise then that being in this state continuously can take a significant toll on the body. As the Mayo Clinic say:

The long-term activation of the stress response system and the over exposure to cortisol that follows can disrupt almost all of your bodies processes”.

Contrary to what some may believe, the risks of chronic stress are not only psychological, they are physical, and they are very troubling. Increased blood pressure driven by stress hormones puts us at risk of stroke or heart attacks. The additional glucose in the bloodstream can lead to type 2 diabetes and obesity. As the digestive system is suppressed and stress hormones inflame the gut, many will suffer with debilitating IBS, heartburn, diarrhoea or constipation. Our immune system’s natural killer cells decrease, and these are vital for fighting infection and cancer. Sexual desire is shut down and stress hormones interfere with sperm production and the menstrual cycle, leading to infertility.(4,5)

Then there is the negative effect of stress on our lifestyle. Stress can be very disruptive to our sleep. I’m sure most people have experienced the feeling that their mind is on high alert, constantly whirring with worries and things to do, making it pretty impossible to drift off. This lack of sleep then leads the body to produce more stress hormones the next day, which makes it less likely to sleep that night, and so it becomes a vicious cycle(6). In addition, our appetite is ramped up by the presence of cortisol and we are driven to choose foods that are high in sugar, which drive a sudden spike in energy and then a subsequent crash, and over time leads to excess fat storage(7). We are much less likely to exercise when we get home from work or connect with our loved ones because we are exhausted. This cycle of poor sleep, poor food choices and low activity means we feel at best, low and sluggish, at worst, anxious and depressed.

What can we do about stress?

I believe the most important step we can take to reduce the impact of stress on our health is to reconnect with our bodies. Our bodies are incredibly wise! They have so many mechanisms that enable us to heal from illness when they are in the rest and digest state. They also tell us when something isn’t right. The question is, are we listening? So many of us live our lives up in our heads and we completely ignore what is going on in our body - we just get used to feeling not-so-great. I spent years downplaying recurrent infections, insomnia and anxiety symptoms. My brain told me I could handle my 100 mile an hour lifestyle, and that in fact, I needed to do more and more to have worth in this world. It wasn’t true.

Unfortunately, we are simply not evolved to cope with the stress we put ourselves through in the 21st Century and we need to start listening to what our bodies already know. When we listen, we can change things for the better. Those changes don’t have to be scary or drastic. For example, it might not be about giving up your job, but you may need to put down some boundaries around it.

If you are interested in learning more about stress and would like to discuss further, please get in touch. In the meantime, here are some things I do to connect with my body, all of which will help to move the body out of fight or flight and into rest and digest:

1. Breathe.

Breathing deeply is the most simple, powerful way to make the body relax. We literally can't be in fight or flight when we are breathing deeply, the problem is that we tend to either hold our breath, or take shallow, fast breaths from our chest. Spending just a few minutes breathing deeply from the belly each day can unlock tension in our bodies.

2. Move.

It doesn’t have to be strenuous - it could be a gentle walk or stretch - but moving our bodies helps us to feel into its sensations.

3. Write.

Putting thoughts and worries down on paper, either first thing in the morning or before you sleep, is an effective way to clear your head and allow your body to be heard.

4. Meditate.

This one can feel daunting for some, but I promise it doesn’t have to be chanting on a mountain for hours! It can simply be a few minutes listening to a mediation app or calming piece of music. Meditation helps us to notice our thoughts as thoughts, rather than a summation of who we are.

5. Start your day well

Create a morning routine which helps to build your resilience to stress. For more on this, check out my blog Transform Your Day with a Morning Routine.


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