Stress symptoms and management
Author: Nina Evans, Researcher & Trainer in Public Health/23 August 2018
Now the summer holidays are coming to a close and a new school year is about to begin, it could be a stressful time for some of us. This week’s blog is focussed on stress, what is it and how we can manage it for the sake of our overall health.
What is stress?
Stress is our body’s natural reaction to a situation that puts us under pressure. Stress isn’t always bad. It can give you that extra burst of energy or can sharpen your concentration to perform well under pressure. However, persistent activation of the stress response can take a toll on the body.
Research has suggested that chronic stress can contribute to all sorts of physical and psychological complications. Such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity (read our blog here for further information), depression and anxiety. Stress is currently the most common form of work-related illness. 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/2017. This indicates how vital it is to manage stress for the sake of our overall health.
Where does it start?
As you may guess, our stress response all begins in the brain. Information is sent to the amygdala. This is an almond-shape set of neurons responsible for emotions, survival instinct, and memory. If a threat is perceived, a distress signal is sent to the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus is the communication between the brain and the rest of the body. It works through the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that enables the ‘flight or fight’ response. The ANS can be divided into the sympathetic nervous systems (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS provides the body with the surge of energy that is needed for action against danger. Whereas the PNS responds after the danger has occurred. The PNS response, also known as the rest and digest phase, enables the body to calm down and relax afterward.
Chronic stress, such as constant work pressure, is the repeated activation of the stress response (including the HPA axis) which doesn’t initiate the PNS. This constant activation, over an extended period of time, can have a negative impact on your health which is when stress-related complications can occur.
Identifying signs of stress could be the first stage of being able to manage and minimise the symptoms for overall health and wellbeing.
Commonly, big life changes cause stress. Stress may be related to work, family, housing and/or personal issues.
However, stress is a hugely subjective experience so it’s not always solely big changes which present symptoms. It could also be little stressors throughout the day which can cause repeated activation of our stress response. As with causes of stress, symptoms of stress differ from person to person. Here are a few common examples;
Inability to concentrate, memory problems, poor judgement, negative thinking, racing thoughts, disinterested.
General unhappiness, anxious thoughts, feeling overwhelmed, loneliness and isolation.
Racing heart and/or palpitations, sweating, shallow breathing, panic attacks, nausea, blurred vision, frequent colds and infections.
Biting nails, picking at skin, eating/sleeping too much or too little, smoking or drinking alcohol more than usual, restlessness and procrastination.
Stress management is particularly important as it will reduce your risk of stress-related complications as well as maintain overall health. Some common and proven ways to reduce are exercise, meditation, mindfulness, massage, yoga, socialising, good sleep and breathing exercises.
If you are struggling to manage stress, especially if you are experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, it is best to speak to your GP who will be able to signpost you to services who are there to help.
For further information and research:
1. Lundberg, U. 2005. Stress hormones in health and illness: The roles of work and gender. [Online]. 30(10), pp. 1017-1021. [Accessed 23 August 2018]/ Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306453005000910
2. Health and Safety Executive. 2019. Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2019. [Online]. [Link updated January 2020]. Available from: https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf
3. Fraser, R., Ingram, M.C., Anderson, N.H., Morrison, C., Davies, E., Connell, J.M. 1999. Cortisol Effects on Body Mass, Blood Pressure, and Cholesterol in the General Population. [Online]. 33(6), pp.1364-1368. [Accessed 30 March 2020]. Available from: https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1161/hyp.33.6.1364
4. 2017. How to deal with stress. [Online]. [Accessed 16 August 2018]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/understanding-stress