When you say, ‘I’m stressed out’, what exactly do you mean? Stress, generally speaking, is the feeling of overwhelming mental or emotional pressure. It’s pressure with a side order of prang – a voice inside your head that says ‘this is too much, you can’t cope’.
People have different ways of reacting to excessive pressure – one man’s motivator may be the upper limit of another man’s stress threshold – but regardless of the root cause, 74 per cent of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope, according to the Mental Health Foundation. It seems that for many of us, the motivating kind of stress is in short supply.
There are three distinct types of stress, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), and they affect your mental and physical health in slightly different ways.
The most common variety, acute stress, stems from “demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands and pressures of the near future”. It’s thrilling in small doses – the APA uses a fast run down a challenging ski slope as a prime example – but ultimately draining. It’s a tight deadline or a traffic jam or an argument with your girlfriend.
When acute stress occurs on a fairly regular basis, it becomes episodic acute stress. We all have that one mate who’s always late, always in a hurry, and always has “too much on”. If something can go wrong, it usually does. They may also be perpetual worriers, forecasting catastrophe around every corner and blaming any setbacks on external events or other people.
If acute stress is a stubbed toe, chronic stress is a toothache. Deep-seated and persistent, it’s the stress of an unhappy marriage, debt, or an unfulfilling career that can go on for years if left to fester. “It’s the stress of unrelenting demands and pressures for seemingly interminable periods of time,” says the APA.
Sound familiar? Below you’ll find out more about the dangers stress can have on your health, the steps you can take to wrench back control, and the dietary supplements that can help safeguard you against the ill-effects going forward.
Stress is a chain reaction, explains Dr Natasha Bijlani, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton. “When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus,” she says. “This area of the brain functions like a command centre, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.”
Your body releases specific hormones as part of this built-in survival mechanism that you’ll recognise from secondary school biology. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, drives up your blood pressure and sends your energy levels surging, while cortisol enhances the rate at which your brain burns through glucose, bumps up your blood sugar levels and increases the availability of tissue-repairing proteins.
Externally, this can translate as sweaty palms, a dry mouth, tense muscles, a lump in the throat, butterflies in your stomach, trembling, needing to pee, shallow or erratic breathing, a tight chest, blurry vision, dizziness, feeling faint or dizzy, and digestive issues like nausea, heartburn, constipation – or the opposite.
Stress and anxiety go hand-in-hand. Inwardly, you might experience nervousness, fear, a sense of dread and feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope, irritability, aggressiveness, a lack of ability to relax or switch off from thoughts or worries, loss of usual interests and inability to enjoy things, explains Dr Bijlani.
This is an energy-sapping state for your body to be in, especially if it’s almost relentless. Before long, it will start to take its toll. As well as feeling physically tired, you might notice aches and pains cropping up all over your body, teeth grinding, insomnia, and an almost non-existent sex drive. Stress can even trigger an outbreak of hives or another form of stress rash.
When the pressure you are under exceeds your ability to cope, says Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director at Healthspan, “it can worsen conditions such as eczema and irritable bowel syndrome, and contribute to high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and stroke. Stress reduces immunity so you are more prone to infections. It may also increase your risk of cancer.”
Your brain also takes a bit of a battering. In moderation, cortisol is “perfectly normal and healthy”, says Dr Bijlani, but when your body makes more than it can possibly release, high levels “can wear down the brain’s ability to function in several ways”.
“It can disrupt the regulation of the gaps between brain neurons, resulting in the loss of sociability,” she explains. “Stress can kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. Chronic stress can lead to shrinking of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning, and increase the size of the amygdala, which can make the brain more receptive to stress.”
Unsurprisingly, stress eats away at your mental health, too. Frustration, difficulty concentrating, muddled thinking, a tendency to lose perspective, difficulty making rational judgements, difficulty making decisions, a tendency to make rash decisions, loss of self-confidence, lost sense of humour, and feelings of impending doom are also common emotional stress symptoms.
“Another is a suffocating sense of overwhelm, even when faced with once simple challenges,” adds Dr Meg Arroll, psychologist on behalf of Healthspan. “The smallest change of plan or additional task is a constant stream of tiny straws breaking the camel's back, especially in people that used to be able to juggle multiple demands easily as they denigrate themselves for not being able to cope.”
Stress may cause behavioural changes that have an impact on our overall health, warns Dr Luke James, medical director of Bupa UK. “Prolonged stress can cause us to make dietary changes, such as an increased or diminished appetite, which in turn promotes weight gain or loss,” he explains. Self-medicating with drugs or alcohol also has an impact on wellbeing.
Other common – but perhaps less outwardly obvious – stress relief coping mechanisms include social isolation, compulsive behaviours, and sleeping problems. “Sleep quality is a night-time mirror of what's going on in the day,” Dr Arroll adds. This has a knock-on effect, too. If you’re exhausted, you’re less likely to hit the gym, and when you do drag yourself down there, you’re (understandably) unlikely to break any PBs.
It’s important to remember that acute stress isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. “Stress is a very normal psychological and physical reaction to positive or negative situations in your life, such as a new job or the death of a loved one,” says Dr Bijlani. “Stress improves productivity and in itself isn't abnormal or bad. What's important is how you deal with stress.”
The techniques you use to combat stress depend, to an extent, on what kind you’re up against. For acute stress, something as simple as writing a to-do list and taking a 15 minute walk might be enough to alleviate symptoms. Chronic stress sufferers might benefit from targeted stress relief through, for example, regular sessions with a therapist – though that’s not to say they won’t benefit from practicing other, more immediate stress management techniques.
From breathing exercises to talking therapy, here, we explain how to deal with stress.
When you’re stressed out, it’s tempting to hit the “f*ck it” button on basic self-care – but eating nourishing, regular meals, ditching alcohol and catching some zzz's will make a difference. “Adopt a relaxing bedtime routine, turn off electronic gadgets two hours before sleep, and ensure your bedroom is comfortable,” says Dr Bijlani.
Exercise can help to relieve stress, says Dr James. “It can improve your mood, give you a sense of achievement and help you release tension,” he says. “When you exercise, your body releases endorphins. Take a walk or get some fresh air during the day, as both exercise and daylight are good for both your mental and physical health.”
Simple deep-breathing exercises kick in the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing the body and mind back to a state of homeostasis, says Dr Arroll. “You can do these anywhere, anytime. In my experience, regulating your breathing pattern is one of the most powerful stress busting techniques.”
Practising mindfulness can be a helpful way to combat stress, suggests Dr James. “Try meditating to overcome anxious thoughts, or relaxation techniques such as yoga or tai chi, which can help calm you down and relax your mind after feeling stressed.” Approach work stress with the same outlook by removing outside distractions and focusing on completing one task at a time.
Take an objective look at your life and identify the main sources of stress, says Dr Arroll. “While you won't be able to remove all of these from your life, it is possible to shift your approach to each source of stress and cage the beast,” she says. “For instance, you might have demanding colleagues who seriously stress you out. By setting firm boundaries, you can limit the impact of these co-workers on your stress levels and health.”
Talking therapies, for example Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, can help manage feelings of stress. “CBT looks at how situations can lead to thoughts that affect your feelings and behaviour,” he explains. “It aims to change the way you think and behave, and helps you to challenge negative thoughts or feelings.”
That said, if these basic stress management efforts aren't helpful enough, see your doctor. “If you've developed chronic anxiety or depression, your doctor will be able to discuss treatment options including referral to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist who can provide specialist management,” Dr Bijlani adds.
The stress responses uses up B vitamins, vitamin C and antioxidants, as well as magnesium, which can lead to deficiency, explains Dr Arroll – ensuring your levels are topped up is an absolute must, since your immune system will already be taking a battering.
It’s called ‘the second brain’ for a reason. External stress has been shown to be as harmful to gut health as junk food in a study published in the journal Scientific Reports. Arm your gut bugs with health-boosting probiotics to help stave off stress symptoms.
Early studies seem to support CBD oil’s status as a bona-fide stress-buster, and the anecdotal evidence is overwhelmingly positive. If you’re taking any medication, check for interactions (or speak to your GP) before you dabble.
Lavender oil capsules
Don’t sniff at the benefits of lavender oil. In a study published in the journal Phytomedicine, lavender oil was shown to be just as effective as the pharmaceutical anti-anxiety drug lorazepam.
A common herbal alternative to anti-anxiety medication, valerian is a plant with mild sedative properties. Again, check for interactions or speak to your GP if you’re taking medication.
Struggling to get your head down? Chamomile tea contains apigenin, an antioxidant that binds to receptors in your brain that promote sleepiness and reduce insomnia.
Part of the mint family, lemon balm is often touted as a stress-soothing, mood-boosting essential oil. A study by the University of Northumbria found that lemon balm eased the negative mood effects of laboratory-induced psychological stress.
Adaptogens help to relieve stress by controlling the release of cortisol and adrenaline from the adrenal glands. As biological response modifiers (BRMs) adaptogens bolster your immune system and instruct your body to adapt to stressors. Ashwagandha, ginseng, reishi, and rhodiola are the ones to look out for.