For many people, stress is a major feature of daily life. We all know that the experience of prolonged stress is unpleasant, and bad for our health, but it can be difficult to reduce stress while still engaging fully in the modern world.
Its impact is so dramatic that – according to the Health and Safety Executive – stress accounted for 37% of all work related ill health cases and 45% of all working days lost in the UK during 2016. In order to combat the effects of stress, we first need to understand how stress works and why it is bad for us.
What is Stress?
Stress is a natural part of our physiology which, in small doses, is completely harmless or even beneficial. We evolved with the stress response in order to protect us from dangers and motivate us to do the things which helped us survive. For example, if we are plunged in icy water, our brain reacts by releasing stress hormones which temporarily increase the glucose in our bloodstream, increase our heart rate and raise our blood pressure. All of this gives us the short-term energy and sense of urgency needed to swim to safety.
Yet in the modern world, this stress response is triggered with unhealthy regularity. Rather than helping us sprint away from predators and naturally dissipating during a long period of rest, we become stuck in a constant state of “flight or fight”. Alarms sounding before we’re ready to wake up, rushing on the commute, deadlines at work, having to get dinner on the table, not being able to sleep at night – it all keeps our systems flooded with stress hormones, and our brains in a state of constant agitation.
Why Stress Makes Us Unwell
Stress is a response which helps us act quickly and effectively in the short term. The stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, provide bursts of energy designed to help us in an emergency. In this emergency mode, the things that keep our bodies quietly ticking over are neglected. For example, energy is redirected from digesting our food to give us the physical strength to fight (or run away from) danger, because in that moment digestion isn’t a priority.
This means that if we are experiencing stress far too often, the cumulative result is a deluge of illnesses that range from the minor, to the very serious:
- Our digestive system doesn’t function properly, and conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome are triggered or worsened.
- As stress suppresses our immune systems, we pick up colds and infections more easily.
- We experience tension headaches, snappiness, low moods and difficulty sleeping.
- Stress makes it harder to deal with pre-existing conditions, triggering symptoms in those living with illnesses like Lupus or depression.
- Too much cortisol disrupts our body’s inflammatory response.
- Chronic stress is thought to keep our blood pressure high and increase the risk of developing heart disease.
How Stress Affects Our Choices
Stress can also indirectly and subtly impact the choices we make, having a tangible effect on our lifestyle. While stress before a big presentation can exhilarate us, heightening our nerves to perform at our best, even at the best of times stress makes us feel on edge. When experience stress on a regular basis it no longer provides a thrill of energy, it just grinds us down with a constant buzz of vague, pointless panic.
It’s in this situation that we start looking for coping mechanisms, and stress limits our ability to think long-term. Instead we end up responding to the needs of the moment, driven by the sense that we’re pressed by urgent tasks and a lack of time. Because of this, we tend to choose temporary and instant solutions that are often unhealthy.
We may light up a cigarette for the temporary relaxation it brings, despite the fact it actually worsens the problem because we experience stress every time we go into nicotine withdrawal (not to mention the other well-documented dangers of smoking). Or it may be that we pour a glass or three of wine in the evenings to unwind, even though alcohol degrades the quality of our sleep, making us feel bad the next day.
With stress making it hard to get a healthy amount of deep sleep, we go about our day strung out and tired, craving high calorie food in order to compensate for our lack of energy. Regular, intermittent stress will make two thirds of people overeat – creating guilt and sometimes health issues – while others undereat and become undernourished. Too much stress can motivate lifestyle choices that not only make us unhealthy, but actually perpetuate the stress which inspires them in the first place.
Solving Your Stress
These are the reasons why too much stress makes us feel terrible, and progressively worse over a period of time. It makes our bodies more vulnerable to illness, prompts poor choices and puts a strain on our mental health. Luckily there are ways to cope with this stress in a healthy and constructive way, such as making time to meditate daily (as the saying goes, “you should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour”) or taking up exercise.
Knowing exactly why too much stress bad for you makes it easier to take the steps needed to reduce it. It highlights the importance of organising your priorities so you can put your health first, rather than getting bogged down in the fleeting pressures of everyday life.