Stress is a common, if not virtually unavoidable, aspect of modern living. It can be a great motivator that provides us with that extra surge of adrenaline to pass the finish line… But it can just as easily cause us sleepless nights, high blood pressure and, if left unchecked, potentially serious health complications. It can lead to damaging issues with anxiety and depression, it can make us short tempered and irritable and it can damage our relationships with those around us.
In our scramble for success we’re often encouraged to embrace stress, to make ourselves the master of it and while there’s some evidence to suggest that some exposure to stress can be good for us, it’s important to know the damaging effects that stress can have on your health and what you can do to mitigate them.
Am I stressed?
Most of us know the cold bucket of water to the face feeling that a stressful situation can give us but many signs of stress are far more subtle. Indeed, many people spend so many times in a state of heightened stress that they don’t even know that they’re stressed and when they start to experience symptoms, they struggle to attribute them to the root cause of stress.
A simple blood test is often all that’s required to determine the physical toll that stress may be taking on your body but often stress is a hidden condition, that’s sometimes marked by symptoms that we don’t traditionally associate with stress. Very often we attribute signs of stress to a passing bug or dismiss them as the result of too much coffee, not warming up enough at the gym or spending too much time in front of a screen.
Among them are:
- Low energy / lethargy
- Upset stomach (cramps, diarrhoea, constipation or nausea)
- Muscle tension, aches and pains
- Chest pains
- Rapid heartbeat
- Sleeplessness / insomnia
- Loss of libido
- Erectile dysfunction
- Frequent colds or viral infection (stress compromises your immune system)
- Dry mouth / difficulty swallowing
- Profuse sweating
- Shaking / sweaty hands
- Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
- Grinding teeth
The symptoms of stress are many and varied ands will depend largely on you and your lifestyle. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms the good news is that there’s plenty of time to address them before they lead to more serious health issues.
What happens if I leave stress unchecked?
A lot of us deal with stress in unhealthy ways. Comfort eating, smoking and drinking are common avoidance behaviours that may provide some immediate short term relief but in real terms they’re only going to make things worse.
If you don’t do something to meaningfully address the causes of stress then the long term effects could become serious, including:
Cardiovascular trouble- Chronically elevated levels of adrenaline and cortisol can have a highly detrimental effect on your heart health in the long term. Stress also changes the way in which our blood clots, increasing our risk of heart attacks. High blood pressure or hypertension is also associated with stress and increases your risk of stroke or heart failure.
Skin trouble- Conditions such as eczema and psoriasis are exacerbated by stress, and outbreaks can in turn be very stressful, uncomfortable, unsightly and damaging to our self-image.
Muscle pain- Stress causes muscle tension which can can aggravate painful muscular conditions such as Repetitive Strain Injury or fibromyalgia, especially when leading a sedentary, desk-bound lifestyle.
Susceptibility to infection- The diminished immune function caused by stress leaves many more susceptible to colds and bugs but it can also increase your risk of more serious viral conditions and aggravate allergies or autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
So, what can I do about it?
Most careers involve some elements of stress and if you’re in your dream career then nobody expects you to completely change your life to avoid stress. Fortunately, you don’t have to. Mitigating the impact of stress in our lives is, in most cases, simply a matter of making a few small lifestyle adjustments.
Eat yourself happy: For many of us, the best advice to take is from Hippocrates himself, “Let food be thy medicine”. When we’re stressed our temptation is to gravitate towards high fat, high sugar, high sodium comfort foods. While these may give us a little endorphin spike, they’re only going to exacerbate the problem in the long term.
Ditching the coffee for a herbal tea is a no-brainer but if (like me) you love the taste of coffee just too delicious to give up then switching to decaf may be the way to go. For decades decaffeinated coffee tasted like dishwater but the industry has really upped its game in the last 20 years so since your tastebuds won’t notice the difference there’s really no excuse for not trying decaf.
There are plenty of delicious, accessible foods that can reduce the symptoms of stress. High magnesium foods such as swiss chard, spinach and pumpkin seeds can reduce your body’s cortisol production while potassium rich foods like avocados and bananas are known to reduce blood pressure.
Get up, get out, see the light: An active lifestyle is essential to combat stress, but that doesn’t mean you have to drag yourself to the gym if you don’t want to. Believe it or not, even exposure to sunlight and nature can boost your body’s production of serotonin so if you work in a fluorescent lit concrete slab try and get out of the office for a few minutes a day. If your home is dingy and dark, add a skylight or some sliding doors, for which we recommend Vivafolio, to fill your home with sunlight and lift your mood. It’s a relatively major adjustment to be sure but it can make a huge contribution to your mental health while also potentially increasing the value of your property. Not bad, eh?
Running, or even a brisk walk two or three times a day is enough to give you a healthy endorphin kick. I also recommend listening to your favourite songs or podcasts while you do so to make the occasion feel more like a treat and less like a task. If you have a dog then walking them is a great way to double your feel good factor with some canine companionship. If you don’t have a dog… You should really consider getting a dog!
Walking and running are also a great way to compartmentalise your problems and give yourself a liberating feeling of escaping them.