It is common knowledge that an overload of stress is not healthy and can have detrimental effects on your mental and physical health. Dr Morgan Mkhatshwa, Clinical Executive at Bonitas Medical Fund, discusses how too much stress interferes with the optimal functioning of your body and mind and results in an alarming number of health issues.
What is stress?
Stress is a natural human response to challenges and threats in our lives. It usually happens when we are in a situation that we don’t feel we can manage or control. Medically, stress causes chemical changes in the body that can raise your blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels.
So, what happens to your body?
Your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is a network of nerves that helps your body activate its ‘fight-or-flight’ response. This system’s activity increases when you’re stressed, in danger or physically active. The body shifts its energy resources toward fighting off a perceived life threat or fleeing from an enemy. The SNS signals the adrenal glands to release hormones called adrenalin (epinephrine) and cortisol.
- The fight response is your body’s way of facing any perceived threat aggressively
- Flight means your body urges you to run from danger
- Freeze is your body’s inability to move or act against a threat
Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases.
What are the most common physical symptoms in reaction to stress
The cortisol and adrenaline hormones released during a stressful situation can cause several changes in your body, including:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure: The increased level of hormones can cause your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to constrict, leading to higher blood pressure.
- Digestive problems: Stress can affect your digestive system and cause symptoms such as stomach pain, bloating, constipation or diarrhoea.
- Weakened immune system: Chronic stress can suppress your immune system and make you more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
- Muscle tension and pain: Stress can cause muscle tension and pain, especially in your neck, shoulders and back.
- Headaches: Stress can trigger tension headaches, migraines as well as muscular spasms in the neck and shoulders.
- Sleep problems: Stress can interfere with your sleep, causing difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up too early.
- Skin problems: Stress can exacerbate skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis or acne.
- Endocrine disorders caused by stress include thyroid hormones leading to hyperthyroidism or hypothyroidism, ghrelin and leptin, the hormones that regulate appetite, increasing hunger, melatonin, resulting in restlessness and insomnia, insulin, contributing to Type 2 diabetes.
- Mental health issues: Chronic stress can also contribute to the development of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and burn-out.
How do you monitor your stress levels?
To monitor your stress, first identify your stress triggers. What makes you feel angry, tense, worried or irritable? Do you often get headaches or an upset stomach with no medical cause? Is it hard to focus or do you have trouble sleeping at night?
Overall, chronic stress can contribute to the development or worsening of chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity, depression and anxiety. Stress can be a killer. Which is why it’s essential to manage your stress. Do this through healthy coping mechanisms such as exercise, meditation, deep breathing or seeking professional help, if necessary.
And remember, your GP should be your first port of call for all your healthcare needs. We believe there needs to be coordination of care and encourage you to see your GP, who can refer you to a specialist or auxiliary provider as and if the need arises.