The impact of stress and how to manage it

Updated: 17 hours ago


Stress impacts all of us at some time or another and this is a completely normal part of life. Stress can actually be beneficial up to a point as it helps us to focus our attention when we need to perform at our peak. Where would we be without a little pressure when preparing for a test, working towards a deadline, or focussing our attention in high-risk situations, for example? However, very high stress, or stress over a prolonged period is known to have a negative impact on our health and wellbeing and can take its toll on performance in our professional, family and social lives.


What is stress?


Stress is an evolved response to internal or external stimuli that signal the body is under threat. In our more primitive state, our weekly shop would have been conducted with spears in lieu of a shopping trolley, and a larger prey's unwillingness to go down without a fight would elicit what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. In this state, heart rate increases and blood pressure rises to maximise delivery of oxygenated blood to the muscles. Pupils dilate and resources are diverted away from non-essential bodily functions, including digestion and production of testosterone, to prioritise the ability to continue to fight, or flee to safety and live to hunt another day.


In today’s world, we have significantly fewer risks when it comes to bringing home food, and we don't have to look over our shoulder to see what apex predator has us in mind for their dinner. We do still experience a similar stress response from triggers in our modern environment, including our jobs, home lives, pressures with money, stresses with health and the list goes on. The problem is, humans are designed to deal with stress occasionally (think attack by a predator). In our lives today, we’re bombarded with stressors daily from work emails, late nights, lack of time, worrying about children etc., meaning our stress response can be firing almost constantly, and lasting for much longer durations.



What are the effects of chronic stress?


Constant stress over time can have implications for our health as well as our ability to function at our peak:


Memory loss:

When we are stressed, our body releases the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. Prolonged circulation of these hormones can cause damage to nerve cells in the hippocampus - the part of the brain responsible for memory - which may lead to increased risk of Alzheimer’s in later life.


Sleep disruption:

It is of no surprise that we find it difficult to sleep when we have something on our mind. Chronic stress can impair the quality of your sleep, causing it to become fragmented - where you wake after having been asleep for just a few hours.


Reduced sex drive:

Increased production of cortisol also diverts resources from making reproductive hormones such as testosterone, leading to hormone imbalance and a reduction in libido.


Digestive issues:

Prolonged redirection of blood flow from the digestive system can lead to digestive problems such as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhoea and indigestion.


Increased risk of problems with the heart and circulation:

High blood pressure can cause damage to artery walls and - coupled with increased tendency for blood clotting in those with high stress levels - lead to greater risk of stroke, DVT and heart attack.



How can we prevent these effects?


To reduce the risk of health issues and suboptimal performance associated with chronic stress, it is important to take control of the signals received by your body each day that are interpreted as ‘threats’. The good news is that there are multiple ways in which this can be done through small changes to your daily and weekly habits.


1. Reframing


Reframing is to consider a stressful event in a positive context, rather than defaulting to a negative frame of mind. For example, if you experience frustration at work, then while the situation may be unfair and and you know that you deserve to be treated better, you may be able to reframe your current situation as a key stepping stone to where you want to be in the future. If there's one thing that's constant in our lives, it's change, and being able to find a path through the bad times is just as important as making the best of the good times. You may be able to consider the positive impact your job role has on the lives of others, and what personal goals and aspirations it has enabled you to achieve so far. Reframing a negative experience can be a powerful tool for reducing stress and its harmful physiological side-effects. A study in 2012 [1] discovered that individuals who practised reframing reported lower blood pressure and increased attention span relative to those who did not reframe their experience. Those who are able to reframe are able to free up more mental capacity, which is essential for problem solving and being able to find the best path forward.


2. Socialising


When you have a busy, erratic schedule it can be difficult to make time for enjoyable activities and social time with others, particularly friends who you may not see day to day. Close friends in particular provide an outlet for discussing important life issues such as work, health, family or money that you may not be ready to discuss with a partner. Devoting effort to these relationships has been found to be incredibly important for managing stress and for maintaining good physical health, as a 2016 [2] review reported a 29% increase in risk of heart disease and a 32% increase in risk of stroke in those with poor social relationships. Joining a sports team or booking in weekly activities with friends can be a good way to ensure you maintain meaningful connections and give yourself a chance to blow off steam.


3. Daily exercise


Short bursts of high intensity exercise may help us to feel less stressed by tapping into the body’s expectation for activity once a flight or flight response has been initiated. Vigorous exercise emulates the energy expenditure and effort required to ‘escape’ a predator or a 'threat to life', therefore giving rise to feelings of calm and safety once the activity is over. 15 minutes of HIIT (high intensity interval training), a short, fast run or even a few sets of press-ups may all help to relieve stress and restore a state of relaxation. A 2010 [3] study reported that just 14 minutes of vigorous exercise each day was shown to reduce stress-related cellular ageing compared with a sedentary lifestyle, suggesting that regular bursts of activity may also negate premature ageing of the body caused by exposure to stressors.


4. Dietary & nutrition


The gut is often thought of as our 'second brain'. It is home to billions of microorganisms that make up what is known as the microbiome. The food we eat day-to-day has the potential to knock the microbiome out of balance and create internal stress. The gut holds a direct line of communication with the brain, meaning imbalances here can have a profound impact on how we feel both physically and mentally. A nutrient-poor diet that is high in processed foods can lead to chronic inflammation and increased risk of depression, diabetes and high blood pressure, among other diseases. To keep your microbiome in check, it’s important to eat a varied diet with as many different types of fruit and vegetables as possible. Fruit, veg, beans and legumes are all excellent sources of fibre which is essential for the growth of diverse, resilient gut bacteria. Indeed a consensus statement published by academics in The Lancet (2015 [4]) advocates the use of nutritional interventions over medication alone in the treatment of mental health complaints. A good first step is to eat at least five servings of fruit and veg daily (note that these must be five different portions - five apples per day will only ever count as one portion due to lack of variety!).


5. Reduce screen time


Advancements in technology mean we’re better connected now than we’ve ever been, but the extra time we spend on our phones can come at the expense of valuable down time. The sheer number of channels available for communication can make it feel we have no choice but to respond to messages as they’re received and the constant stream of “highlights” delivered via social media can lead to feelings of inadequacy if our own lives don’t seem to measure up. Reducing time spent checking emails and scrolling socials is therefore important for reducing stress and improving wellbeing. It may be difficult to reduce screen time if you're not sure what your current daily usage is. Try downloading an app to monitor your device usage and set yourself a max limit each day. You may also find it helpful to allocate windows of time for checking emails and take regular breaks from your phone altogether. One 2017 [5] study found that the mere presence of your device provides a subconscious distraction to your brain, leading to impairments in task performance. When performing key tasks, try putting your phone out of sight and coming back to it once you no longer need to focus.


If you are really struggling, or are experiencing physical symptoms such as chest pain or shortness of breath, you must seek urgent medical attention. Otherwise, making small changes can have a transformative effect on how you experience stress. Choose just one of these simple strategies to begin with and consider how you can implement this into your routine. You may find it helpful to discuss ideas with your friends and / or family to let them know how you’re feeling and gain support.


Sophie Fox

Fx Health

Performance Nutritionist and Health Adviser


Resources


[1] Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over matter: Reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(3), 417.

https://doi.org/10.1037/a0025719


[2] Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., Ronzi, S., & Hanratty, B. (2016). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: Systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart, 102(13), 1009-1016.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/heartjnl-2015-308790


[3] Puterman, E., Lin, J., Blackburn, E., O'donovan, A., Adler, N., & Epel, E. (2010). The power of exercise: buffering the effect of chronic stress on telomere length. PloS one, 5(5), E10837.

https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0010837


[4] Sarris, J., Logan, A. C., Akbaraly, T. N., Amminger, G. P., Balanzá-Martínez, V., Freeman, M. P., ... & Nanri, A. (2015). Nutritional medicine as mainstream in psychiatry. The Lancet Psychiatry, 2(3), 271-274.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ S2215-0366(14)00051-0


[5] Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2), 140-154.

https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/691462

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