Why has long-term stress such a big impact on your health and what can you do about it?

22550023_10213240319457930_1815752440258463320_n-01Photo: Anna Pelosi

Do you have difficulty relaxing and calming the mind? Do you react easily frustrated and moody? Do you often have an upset stomach? Frequent colds and infections? Restless nights? Increased use of alcohol? Grinding teeth in the night? Do you have difficulty concentrating and recall a memory?

Long-term stress is one of the main causes of many illnesses (mental and physical). Nevertheless, Western medicine usually treats only the symptoms rather than the cause. Rarely, a change in lifestyle is advised.

I studied Psychology because I want to help people. But even then I knew that I did not want to concentrate only on psychology. Every day I experience the importance of a balanced healthy diet, sufficient sleep, sun (vitamin D), and physical activity for our health and well-being. Despite my healthy lifestyle, I too can get sick. The trigger is usually stress. Perceived stress weakens the immune system, while being much more vulnerable to bacteria and viruses.

Since stress has such a big impact on our health, I want to dedicate this text fully to stress. How stress arises, how stress and the immune system interact with each other, the consequences of stress and how you can learn to deal with stress or how to shape your life in a way that you feel as little stress as possible.

Stress as an individual phenomenon

Stress is an individual phenomenon. What causes stress in one person may be of little concern to another. Some people are better able to handle stress than others. Determining for the development of stress is the subjective evaluation of the situation with regard to one’s own wellbeing and the evaluation of one’s own coping possibilities.

Interaction between brain and immune system

Stress has a direct impact on our immune system, both hormonally and via our autonomic nervous system. As soon as we perceive an event as stressful, the hypothalamus, a tiny region in our brain, releases a Hormone, which leads through several intermediate steps to the release of cortisol into the bloodstream as well as to the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. This innate stress response is useful and sometimes even lifesaving, as long as the stress lasts for a short time. An example: I have a serious car accident. When I want to get off, I notice that my leg is stuck. Adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol cause the blood vessels to narrow and support the clotting of blood, so I bleed less heavily. This leads to an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and blood circulation. Digestion slows as more blood is channeled into the muscles. The bronchi are extended to increase the oxygen supply to the brain. This allows faster reaction ability. Noradrenaline inhibits sexual function. No need at this moment 😉 Cortisol leads to an increase in blood sugar levels, so I have more energy. Cortisol also has an anti-inflammatory effect and inhibits the immune system.

The consequences of stress

In the short term, stress can also motivate you to accomplish a task or run the last kilometer of a marathon. As you can imagine, this condition is very unhealthy if it lasts for a long time. Since the immune system is weakened, one is much more vulnerable to bacteria and viruses. Cancer (e.g., colon cancer) and tumors can be less efficiently fought. The narrowed blood vessels, increased blood pressure and blood flow exhaust the heart and increase the likelihood of developing a cardiovascular disease. Long-term stress increases the type 2 diabetes risk due to increased blood sugar levels.

Ongoing stress can cause or worsen many serious health problems, including:

  • digestive problems, gastrointestinal problems and gastric ulcers
  • Because of overstimulation (cortisol), it leads to a neuronal loss in the hippocampus, which is important for memory processes. This leads to recall problems.
  • Headaches, back, neck and shoulder pain. Stress can intensify both its severity and its duration because the muscles are tight.
  • Bigger likelihood of giving birth to a premature baby or an underweight baby due to reduced oxygen feed to the fetus.
  • Asthma
  • Rheumatic arthritis
  • Skin diseases
  • accelerates aging processes in tissues (degradation of elastin and collagen)
  • Stress can delay healing of local infections, like a mosquito bite.
  • Menstrual problems
  • Sexual dysfunction, such as impotence and premature ejaculation in men and loss of sexual desire in both men and women.

Typical mental diseases caused by long-term stress:

  • Depression
  • “Burnout”
  • Abuse of alcohol, tobacco and medicines
  • Sleeping problems
  • anxiety and panic disorders
  • Obesity and other eating disorders
  • psychosis, schizophrenia

A differentiated diagnosis is necessary. Back pain can also be caused by a disadvantageous working position. Loss of sexual desire due to the side effect of drugs (e.g. birth control pills, antidepressants). Menstrual problems can be caused by a mineral deficiency as a result of an unbalanced diet or an increased need.

Symptoms of stress

The first step to controlling stress is to know the symptoms of stress. Recognizing stress symptoms may be harder than you think. Most of us are so used to being stressed that we often don’t know that we are stressed until we are at the limit. Because people handle stress differently, symptoms vary. Here some examples of the different areas.

Symptoms:

  • Emotional
    • one reacts easily frustrated, agitated, and moody
    • has difficulty relaxing and calming the mind
    • Feels overwhelmed and loses control
    • feels depressed and/or apathy
    • is more anxious than usual
  • physical
    • The body’s growth processes are temporarily suppressed. Stress may be the reason why a child in the growth phase stops growing.
    • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
    • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
    • cold and/or sweaty hands and feet
    • ringing in the ear
    • Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
    • already mentioned: headaches, Frequent colds and infections, Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
  • behavioral
    • restless nights
    • Changes in appetite: either not eating or eating too much
    • Increased use of alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes
    • Exhibiting more nervous behaviors, such as nail biting, fidgeting, and pacing
    • Grinding teeth in the night
  • Cognitive
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Constant worrying, Racing thoughts
    • seeing only the negative sides
    • Forgetfulness and difficulty to recall a memory

Dealing with stress

So what can you do when you realise, you are stressed? First try to figure out why you feel stressed. Are you in an unhealthy relationship? Do you get bullied? Do you have money worries? Are you newly in love? (yes, newly in love triggers a stress reaction in the body) Did someone you liked die? Now think about whether you can change anything about the situation. Also a reinterpretation of the situation can help. In an uncontrollable situation, calming the emotions triggered by the situation makes sense. Other ways to deal with stress:

  • Moderate exercise reduces stress hormones. In trained people, the blood pressure and pulse rate doesn’t increase that much.
  • Learn to express yourself before you explode.
  • Forgive yourself for your mistakes and setbacks. A mistake is not a failure. It is an opportunity to learn from it and grow. If you regret you are not happy in that moment. It is past. So accept it. Move on.
  • When you’ve reached a low point in life (e.g. you lost your job or a close person), remember it’s going to go by. Better times will come. You can’t control everything in your live. But you can control HOW you react to a thought or a situation. Accept that everything is temporary. Also your health. Be grateful for what you have in that moment.
  • Forgive other people. If there is someone in your past that hurt you, forgive. If not you will focuse on the past and suffer.
  • Learn not to judge. For example what other people do; that you have to get up early or the traffic. You can’t change it in that moment. Those judgments only increases stress and frustration.
  • Learn to say “no”: Don’t say yes to every request. If saying no isn’t an option, a “yes, if” can work.
  • Learn to recover without feeling guilty.
  • Learn a positive attitude towards challenges and change.
  • Having social support, the body produces oxytocin, which lowers cortisol, blood pressure and anxiety, while boosting trust and empathy. Oxytocin is also released when giving birth and having an orgasm.
  • Social competence training
  • Vital: structured daily routine (time management)
  • recovery and prevention
    • People who spend a lot of time in nature react less quickly stressed.
    • Decide certain times the phone is switched off (e.g. after dinner) and cellphone-free areas (e.g. at the dining table, bedroom).
  • relaxation techniques. Develop a lifestyle that is beneficial to relaxation. Massages (works rather short term) and meditation (works long term) help me a lot personally
  • Biofeedback methods are useful to lower high blood pressure
  • increase self-efficacy and self-esteem through various techniques
  • acquire a new competence (e.g. language)
  • reward yourself differently (e.g. with a massage instead of sweets)

Closing words

Stress has a direct impact on our hormone balance as well as our autonomic nervous system. It is very important to me that you understand this interaction. It’s unlikely that life is ever completely stress-free. However, long-term stress is unhealthy. Whether you want it or not. Therefore try to arrange your life in a way that you are sufficiently relaxed. Learn to recognize when you are stressed and what you can do about it. This will help you prevent many illnesses. I hope this text is helpful for you, and that you learned something new about stress. If you would like more support, I can offer you a personal call. The first consultation costs nothing 🙂

Thank you for reading.

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