Stress-related illness costs the economy £3.7 billion a year and affects an estimated one in five of us each year. Hilly Janes explains why stress makes us ill and runs through seven of the most common types of stress-related illness.
Fight or flight and stress-related illness
The “fight-or-flight response”, or simply the “stress response” is a physiological reaction to situations that we feel we can’t control – from taking an exam to losing a loved one. It evolved to help our ancestors deal with threats from predators or other dangers, by priming the body for either fighting or fleeing.
If we experience this stress response too often, however, it can cause stress-related illness. While some people dismiss feeling “stressed out” as being ”all in the mind”, the effects of stress on our health are now well researched by scientists, partly because stress-related illness causes high levels of work absenteeism at a huge economic cost.
The role of adrenaline
When faced with a perceived threat, whether physical or psychological – a car heading straight for us or else a bullying boss – our bodies produce “stress hormones” such as adrenaline. This speeds up our heart and breathing rates to help pump oxygen round our bodies in preparation either to fight the threat or run for the hills. It can also trigger sweating and a dry mouth. As the threat recedes, so does the adrenaline, but if it’s long term – “a chronic stressor” – and especially if it’s emotional, a high level of adrenaline may lead to stress-related illness.
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Why cortisol matters
This hormone is present in our bodies all the time and is vital for many functions, including regulating our blood sugar and metabolism. But levels increase as an effect of stress, when cortisol triggers short bursts of energy, heightened alertness and dampens down our pain response.
It makes hearts beat faster and muscles tense – helpful in dangerous situations, but if cortisol is continuously elevated, scientists believe, these responses can also cause stress-related illness. High cortisol can also reduce our sex drive and, in women, cause irregular periods, or stop them altogether.
Chronic overexposure to stress hormones has also been linked with both obesity and memory impairment.
7 kinds of stress-related illness
1. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) and heart problems
Increased heart rate and high blood pressure are two of the most serious health effects of stress. Several reputable studies have shown the link between higher reported stress levels at work and increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. If you think that stress is causing these symptoms, you should see a doctor. Left untreated, they can prove fatal.
2. Inflammation – of skin conditions and others
Research also suggests that raised levels of stress hormones can cause inflammation, aggravating conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, eczema, skin rash, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. This altered inflammatory response can also have an effect on our immune system, which kicks in when we try to fight off infections like colds. Even just dwelling on stressful events in the past can increase levels of inflammation, found a 2013 study at Ohio University. Speak to your doctor if you have the conditions just mentioned and think that stress might be causing or aggravating them. You can also use our stress tests find therapies to help cope with your symptoms.
3. Insomnia and sleep problems
One of the most common effects of stress is difficulty “switching off”, resulting in not being able to get off or back to sleep, and/or waking too early in the morning. A large study published in the European Heart Journal in 2013 made a link between insomnia and heart failure in people with these symptoms. Meanwhile, chronic sleep deprivation is likely not just to make you feel tired and irritable but can also cause accidents. Many people find hypnotherapy and meditation to be particularly effective in treating stress-related insomnia.
4. Physical tension and headaches
It’s not surprising that increased levels of hormones that cause our muscles to tense up in preparation for a fight can, in the long term, also cause pain, stiffness and tension headaches. In small doses, this may not cause problems and can be alleviated by exercise, breathing techniques or hands-on therapies like massage. In the longer term, however, they can be harmful.
5. Depression and anxiety
Feeling unable to cope and worrying a lot is another stress symptom that, left untreated, can lead to serious health problems such as depression and anxiety. Talking therapies like CBT can help, but you may need medication too. You should therefore see a doctor if these effects of stress are stopping you from functioning normally.
6. Digestive problems and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Tummy trouble such as nausea and stomach ache with no medical cause can often be stress related. In particular, IBS or irritable bowel syndrome – a cluster of symptoms including bloating, cramps, diarrhoea and constipation – is thought to be partly stress related and the anxiety caused by needing to rush to the toilet can make the problem worse. Nutrition can play an important part here and if your doctor can’t help, visiting a nutritionist might.
7. Self-medication – cigarettes, alcohol, food and drugs
Many of us cope with stress by reaching for cigarettes, alcohol, food or even drugs. Of course, a glass of wine can help us relax, and a bar of chocolate can cheer us up, but “self-medicating” excessively by consuming any of these things in excess can lead to health problems that in turn create more stress. This can be difficult to face up to, but it’s best to seek professional help – overindulging or even becoming addicted is often a greater health risk than many other stress-related conditions.