The relationship between stress and physical health is complex: stress can cause physical symptoms and illness, and physical illness can heighten stress.
Stress is a major problem in modern society and is a leading cause of sickness absence in the UK. Some 11.7 million work days are lost to stress and stress accounts for 37 percent of all cases of work related ill health and 45 percent of all sick days. The cost to UK businesses has been estimated at some £6.5 billion.
What is stress?
Stress comes from feeling under unusual pressure that makes us feel uncomfortable, and the triggers can vary from heavy workload and looming deadlines to family upset or money worries. Our body responds to stress in a physical way. When we feel under threat our body releases the hormones adrenalin and cortisol which heighten our alertness and makes our heart beat faster to pump blood more quickly around the body. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response and is useful in emergencies, but can be a problem if someone is stressed over a long period of time.
Symptoms of stress
In the short-term, increased heart rate and the sudden release of hormones can affect us physically:
- Sweating, quick breathing or hyperventilating.
- Nausea or dizziness.
- Panic attack.
But prolonged periods of stress can have more serious health effects such as:
- chest pain;
- skin conditions, such as psoriasis;
- diarrhoea and constipation;
- high blood pressure – leading to coronary heart disease;
- loss of sleep;
- loss of libido;
Stress experienced over a long period can lead people to make bad health choices. Smoking is commonly used as a quick stress buster but plays a major role in reducing the life expectancy of people suffering anxiety, depression and stress. People also turn to alcohol or comfort food to cope with stress, or they find the impact of stress reduces their motivation to do exercise. These choices all have bad long-term consequences for a person’s physical health.
Causes of stress
The causes of stress are, of course, many and various and depend on individual circumstances. But common among them is the feeling of having lost control or of facing insurmountable problems. Among the major triggers are:
- life events, family disagreement, crisis, bereavement or break-up;
- overwork, unreasonable deadlines, challenging tasks, long hours or unsupportive managers and colleagues;
- money worries, debt, inability to meet mortgage or bill payments;
- long-term physical illness causing lost mobility or worry.
Developing your coping skills
- Identify the causes of stress – Keep a diary and record what is making you stressed. List your roles and responsibilities and prioritise. Ask others to take over tasks at home and work if you find you have too much to cope with.
- Social support and relationships – Talk to friends and relatives about the stress you feel and reach out to them for help and support. Just talking things through could give you a different view on what is causing you stress.
- Count to 10 – In the face of a stressful situation, stop, count to 10, and take stock. Your calm response could take the heat out of a stressful situation.
- Wind down – Lack of sleep is a major problem for people encountering high levels of stress. Keep off alcohol and caffeine in the hours before bedtime and turn off electronic gadgets.
- Talk out your worries – Counselling could help you put life into perspective and enable you to cope with stress.
Protecting yourself against the physical symptoms of stress
Being subjected to stress over a long period can grind you down and diminish your resilience. Try these ideas for boosting your immunity to stress.
- Exercise (daily, if possible) – Regular exercise is well known for boosting energy and encouraging a sense of wellbeing. It’ll make you fitter and stronger too.
- Good diet – Healthy food, including lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, will complement exercise in making you look and feel great.
- Stop smoking – Smoking is a major cause of ill health in people suffering stress, anxiety and depression.
- Moderate your drinking – Alcohol is often turned to for short-term relief from stress but it is a depressant and can actually contribute to feelings of depression or anxiety and make stress harder to deal with.
- Take a break – Make sure you take a lunch break and try to leave work on time. Always take the holidays you are due and be good to yourself.
- Mindfulness – Take conscious steps to look after yourself and boost your wellbeing. Try yoga or mediation and make time for the things you enjoy doing.
People can develop skills to cope and do recover if they get the right support. Anyone who continues to feel overwhelmed to contact a health care professional for advice and support.
Fit for Work offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).