Stress is a normal physical reaction to situations that require increased energy. Famine, predators and bad weather were some of the factors that triggered the stress response during the Stone Age. Nowadays, our stress factors are deadlines, late trains and exams – but the body still reacts as it did during the Stone Age, when the threats were of a more serious nature.
You could say that stress forces us to withdraw money from our savings account (energy reserves) to cover an unforeseen expense. As long as the savings account is well stocked, we’ll stay healthy. But if we stress more than we can afford to, it will lead to negative effects on our health.
Symptoms of stress
Being stressed is a part of life. But uninterrupted stress can create or exacerbate many disorders. Some symptoms include:
• Chest pains
• Stomach issues
• Nose bleeds
• Arrhythmia (issues with heart rate)
• Kidney Stones
• Abnormal Vaginal Bleeding
(These symptoms can also be signs of other conditions. Please contact your GP if you are unsure.)
Effects of long-term stress
Excessive and prolonged stress can cause burnout. The body can no longer cope with a high level of stress and goes into a low-energy setting: the main energy supply has been depleted.
How do you curb the negative effects of stress? The short answer: Don’t do too much or too little!
We need to find a balance between being active and relaxed and between being awake and asleep. Constantly being alert and never being able to relax is obviously harmful, but being idle and passive can also be stressful. Depressed people often have high levels of stress hormones, even if they can hardly get out of bed.
Most people in our society however, have too much activity in their lives. That can be balanced out with mindfulness exercises, yoga, tai chi qi gong, or by taking walks in tranquil surroundings, taking care of pets or being out in nature.
Almost everyone knows this. But many of us skip the recovery period and have another coffee to cope better with excess work. If this applies to you then it might be wise to seek help from a psychologist.
What is stress?
Stress is something that forces an organism to exert itself in order to adapt to new circumstances. A stress-free environment is therefore not possible. Every living thing – humans, animals, and even plants – is subjected to stress just by being.
As soon as the temperature in our surroundings change, we endure stress, which means our body has to adapt so as not to overheat or get cold. We endure a great charge of stress every morning in order to wake from a state of sleep and get out of bed. We are subjected to various kinds of bacteria and virus each day that our immune system has to fend off – another instance of stress.
How stress affects the body
As we’ve noted previously, stress exists in more cases than we realise. But the common use of the word “stress” refers to the state of being alert and ready. This is because your body has evolved to be prepared for any exhausting, or potentially life-threatening situations.
The first thing that occurs in a stress reaction is the increase in adrenaline levels. It makes us faster and stronger, but also more aggressive and impatient. You will have a “short fuse”. If we manage to handle the situation calmly, our adrenaline levels dip and we can relax once more.
But if stress persists over a prolonged time, it will lead to our cortisol levels increasing. Cortisol is a stress hormone that only works in moderate amounts. Too much or not enough of it can be harmful.
Increased cortisol can feel great to begin with – you have more energy and need less sleep. But prolonged stress has negative long-term effects, such as obesity, hyperglycaemia and difficulty winding down.
If cortisol levels stay high for a prolonged time, your body can stop reacting by “shutting down” the system, leading to debilitation and apathy. This phenomenon is most common with those that are signed off on sick leave due to “burn-out” or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
Internal and external stress
Whether the apparent threat is internal or external does not matter to your brain. It interprets stressful thoughts in the same way as real, external threats. If you live a stressful life, it is important to be aware of how you formulate your thoughts, to avoid getting hung up on things you cannot affect. Methods like mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be of help to those who wish to be more adept at stress management.
Positive and negative stress
Your attitude towards stress can play an important role. A recent study shows that people that didn’t view their stress as an issue went on to live longer than those who perceived stress as something harmful, even though both groups had equal amounts of stress in their lives.
As long as the stress is kept at a reasonable level it can actually be healthy. Exercise and fitness are examples of a type of stress: you subject the muscles to force in order for them to grow stronger. “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” is a well-known expression, which suggests that tough experiences can make you stronger in the long term. This is called Hormesis in scientific terms.
Having said that, we originally evolved as hunters and gatherers, who were genetically adept to living a quiet life, with temporary dangers that pass quickly, for example predators. Today, most of the stress catalysts we face are less harmful, but occur much more frequently. It is common in modern societies for most of us to experience a daily barrage of push notifications, social media updates, news, traffic noise and performance requirements. Peace and quiet is rare in both our surroundings and on the inside of us. This constant stimulation can lead to insufficient sleep and recuperation.
Stress and sick leave
Stress related mental disorders (such as burn-out and depression) are currently the most common cause of long-term sick leave. Moderation is also key here. It’s essential to recuperate in a calm manner, but it’s also important not to get too used to total passivity. That is why it is recommended to start working part-time after having had sick leave for some time, and then slowly start escalating the work hours based on your ability.