Updated: Mar 19, 2021
Stress impacts all of us at some time or another and this is a completely normal – and occasionally beneficial - part of life. Where would we be without a little pressure when preparing for a test or working towards a deadline, for example? However, very high stress, or stress over a prolonged period is known to have a negative impact on health and wellbeing with potential to impact many aspects of life.
What is stress?
Stress is an evolved response to stimuli that signal the body is under threat. In our more primitive state, an attack by a predator would elicit what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, characterised by increased heart rate, heavy breathing and diversion of blood from the digestive system to the limbs to prioritise the ability to fight or flee.
In the modern world, a similar stress response can come from work emails, late nights, lack of time, worry about money, health and so on. This steady stream of daily stressors can mean that, for many of us, our stress response is firing almost constantly.
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. Common issues associated with prolonged stress include memory loss, reduced libido, digestive complaints and increased risk of problems with the heart and circulation.
How can we prevent these effects?
To reduce the risk of health issues 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.
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, rather than think “This is unfair, I deserve to be treated better than this”, you may instead make the effort to focus on why your job is important and the positive impact your role has on the lives of others. Reframing a negative experience can be a powerful tool for reducing stress and its harmful physiological side-effects. A study in 2012 discovered that individuals who practised reframing reported lower blood pressure and increased attention span relative to those who did not reframe their experience.
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 is, therefore, incredibly important for managing stress and maintaining a sense of wellbeing. Joining a sports team or booking in weekly activities (or Zoom calls!) with friends can be a good way to ensure you maintain these 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 fight or flight response has been initiated. Vigorous exercise emulates the energy expenditure and effort required to ‘escape’ a predator, therefore giving rise to feelings of calm and safety once the activity is over. 10 minutes of HIIT, a short, fast run or even a few sets of press-ups may all help to relieve stress and restore a state of relaxation. Just 14 minutes of vigorous exercise each day has been shown to reduce stress-related cellular ageing as 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 fibre
The gut 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 diet high in processed foods, for example, 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. Aim to eat at least five servings of these daily, and don’t be afraid to try new and different food items to maintain 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 dissatisfaction, failure and inadequacy if our own lives don’t appear to be measuring up. Reducing the amount of time spent checking emails and scrolling socials is important for reducing stress and improving wellbeing. Download an app to monitor your daily screen time - you’ll likely be surprised by how much time you spend glued to your phone! Set yourself a max amount of screen time each day and try to stick within this. Allocate set windows of time for checking emails and consider other activities for spare moments, like a crossword, sudoku or even some light exercise. This will help you to switch off from ‘tech-stressors’ and create a feeling of calm and accomplishment.
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.
Performance Nutritionist and Health Adviser
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 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.