Stress is a normal reaction the body has when changes occur, resulting in physical, emotional and intellectual responses. In most cases, stress increases heart rate and breathing, muscles tense and short-term memory kicks in.
This response has evolved to keep us safe, as it prepares the body for ‘fight or flight’ when we sense danger. Research has also shown that thinking skills improve as stress increases. So in short bursts, stress can be a good thing. It can help us prepare for a sports match, job interview or exam. Usually, after a stressful event, the body returns to its normal state.
We all experience stress in our daily activities and despite being unpleasant, it is not an illness. There are connections between stress and mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, with the wealth of knowledge I have amassed from GYMHA’s Annual Stress Management Submit over the years, I will be able to help you deal with changes in a healthier way in this article.
Many situations can cause a stress response in the body. Changes at work, illness, accidents, problems with relationships, family, money or housing can all cause stress. Even seemingly small daily hassles like someone pushing in a queue can make us feel stressed. What links all these situations is that we’re unable to predict and control what is happening to us, and so our body goes into a state of increased alertness. And these events can happen all the time – triggering the body’s stress response over and again.
When the stress response becomes prolonged (chronic), it has a very different effect to the short bursts that enhance the body’s abilities. In many cases, the system controlling the stress response is no longer able to return to its normal state. Attention, memory, and the way we deal with emotions are negatively impacted. This long-term stress can contribute to both physical and mental illness through effects on the heart, immune and metabolic functions, and hormones acting on the brain.
Some of the emotional and behavioural symptoms of stress overlap with those of mental health conditions like anxiety or depression. This can make it hard to distinguish where one begins and the other ends, or which came first. Someone who is stressed may feel worried, down, unable to concentrate or make decisions, irritable and angry.
Chronic stress increases the risk of developing depression and anxiety in some people. The precise mechanisms of how stress is linked to mental ill-health are being uncovered.
Scientists found that the earliest response to stress happens in the brain within seconds of perceiving a ‘stressor’. Chemicals which signal between nerve cells (neurotransmitters) are released. These include serotonin and adrenaline. Following this, stress hormones are released, which particularly affect areas of the brain key for memory and regulating emotions. Repeated stress changes how well these systems are able to control stress response.
Researchers are also investigating how these systems are involved in anxiety and depression, suggesting a biochemical link between stress and mental illness. Recent studies have shown that long-term stress can change the structure of the brain, especially in areas supporting learning and memory. It can affect both nerve cells (grey matter) and the connections between them (white matter). It is possible these changes, along with other factors, can increase the likelihood of developing mental illness.
Another link between stress and mental health is the immune system. During the stress response, the immune system is activated, helping to keep us safe. But chronic stress and prolonged activation of the immune system could negatively affect how the brain functions.
A prolonged activation of the immune system is also linked to depression. Researchers are working to understand how this activation can lead to depression and other types of mental illness in some people. About 30% of people with depression have increased immune activity in the body. Researchers are also undertaking clinical trials to find out if anti-inflammatory drugs might be able to help people with this kind of depression.
In some cases, short-term stress can also lead to a mental health condition. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop after experiencing an extremely traumatic or stressful event. Someone affected may experience vivid flashbacks or nightmares, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. The exact causes of the condition are not clear – though some of the risk factors are understood.
There are lots of ways to help anyone who is stressed. The first advice is to try and identify the cause of stress and tackle it. Avoiding the problem may make it worse. Often, it isn’t possible to change a situation and prevent stress. But, there are many ways to help control it, and stress management may be effective in improving health.
Stress is subjective — not measurable with tests. Only the person experiencing it can determine whether it’s present and how severe it feels. A healthcare provider may use questionnaires to understand your stress and how it affects your life.
You can’t avoid stress, but you can stop it from becoming overwhelming by practicing some daily strategies: Exercise when you feel symptoms of stress coming on. Even a short walk can boost your mood.
At the end of each day, take a moment to think about what you’ve accomplished — not what you didn’t get done. Set goals for your day, week and month. Narrowing your view will help you feel more in control of the moment and long-term tasks. Consider talking to a therapist or your healthcare provider about your worries.
Try relaxation activities, such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation. Programs are available online, and at many gyms and community centres.
Take good care of your body each day. Eating right, exercising and getting enough sleep help your body handle stress much better. Stay positive and practice gratitude, acknowledging the good parts of your day or life. Accept that you can’t control everything. Find ways to let go of worry about situations you cannot change. Learn to say “no” to additional responsibilities when you are too busy or stressed.
Stay connected with people who keep you calm, make you happy, provide emotional support and help you with practical things. A friend, family member or neighbour can become a good listener or share responsibilities so that stress doesn’t become overwhelming.