It is an unfortunate fact of life that stress levels are increasing. Not only does stress-related illness cost employers $300 billion annually, 70% of people report to have suffered because of stress. Jobs, relationships, money and health are the main contributors, which are gradually increasing stress levels to epidemic proportions.
There are many physical and psychological effects of stress. Some symptoms are mild, however over a prolonged period of time they can ultimately be fatal. Most people will be familiar with some of the more common symptoms of stress.
Constant worrying about a situation, sleep disturbances, irritability, fatigue, elevated blood pressure and heart rate are clear signs of stress. It is inevitable that most people will experience periods of stress in their lives, however, when this stress becomes long-term or beyond what an individual can comfortably handle, the symptoms and effects can escalate.
When a person is put into a stressful situation, their body reacts in the same way that the human body has been reacting throughout time – with a fight or flight response. The body releases adrenalin in preparation. Adrenalin makes the heart pump harder, in the same way as it does when a person is excited or thrilled. Feeling tense and on edge come along with the release of adrenalin. If the body is under constant stress, more and more adrenalin in released, which can lead to an increased heart rate and increased blood pressure.
Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. It is released by the body when it is in a stressful situation, in conjunction with adrenalin. Cortisol’s main function is to provide the body with enough energy to make it through the dangerous situation. It does this by making more glucose available to the tissues, such as the brain and skeletal muscles, which are involved in a sudden fight or flight situation. While this is a great mechanism, cortisol also diverts glucose and the blood supply away from non-essential organs, such as the gastrointestinal tract, reproductive system and immune system. This means that, over time, these organs can suffer if they are constantly exposed to high levels of cortisol.
Digestive problems are common in people suffering from stress. They can range from bouts of diarrhea or constipation to much more serious complaints of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and ulcers. Stress is also linked to reproductive problems such as infertility in men and women, impotence and low sperm count. These problems are more common in those experiencing stress than those who are not. Cortisol acts as an inhibitor to main sex hormones in the body, and is able to prevent ovulation and sperm production.
Most people associate stress with cardiovascular problems, and in fact, stress is a major contributor to hypertension and heart disease. Stress can cause heart problems via a number of avenues. Someone experiencing stress is unlikely to take as good care of their body as they maybe should. Poor nutrition along with an increase in alcohol, tobacco and illegal drug consumption are common in those trying to alleviate the stress that they feel. All of these things are bad for cardiovascular health. Increased adrenalin and cortisol levels in the body also play havoc with the nerve and blood supply to the heart and can cause a change in the blood consistency making it more prone to clotting. All of these factors can take their toll on the heart, making heart disease, and possible heart failure more likely.
The immune system is another part of the body that comes under attack when a person is stressed. The immune system acts as a clean-up mechanism within the body to destroy any invading bacteria and viruses. It also mounts a response when there is tissue injury and inflammation. If the immune system becomes depressed, the person will be less likely to be able to ward off infections and illnesses. This can lead to a stressed person contracting more colds and common illnesses, but it can also make them more at risk of contracting more serious illnesses.
When the body is invaded by, for example, a virus, the immune system uses its array of different cells to firstly detect the virus and then attack it with the appropriate response. Studies have shown that in people suffering from stress, the body is unable to produce the appropriate “killer cells” in the same quantities as in a healthy person. This research shows that stress can have a detrimental effect on the normal pathways that exist within the body, designed to warn, protect and heal it.
The results of stress can be difficult to reverse, but stress levels themselves can be reduced through relatively simple modifications if they are caught before they get too bad. The first stage in trying to alleviate stress is to pinpoint what the trigger is. If it is work-related, then approaching your employers to see if they can improve your working conditions may help. If the problem is financial, then taking advice from a professional could be of some benefit.
It is an almost impossible task to completely rid your life of stress but there are ways to make life run more smoothly. If you can’t do anything about the main areas of stress in your life, then at least make the most of your “me time.” Spending time with friends or pursuing a hobby can give people the mental and physical break that they need in order to combat the stress. Counseling services are also available to deal with all kinds of stress and can not only offer a place to unburden your woes but can also offer practical advice and management techniques to help with the stress.
The important thing to remember with stress is that it can be overcome. Focusing on the good things in your life may not completely eliminate your stress, but it can give you a far happier outlook on life. Remember to think of stress as just a small part of your life rather than in being the only thing in it.