In the UK, it is estimated that more than eight million people experience stress and anxiety at any one time. It is even more evident in the United States, where the American Institute of Stress stated that anywhere from 75% to 90% of doctor visits in the US are in some way related to it. There are ways to help minimise its negative impact, and in this feature, Psychotherapist Noel McDermott reveals them.
When long-term stress becomes overwhelming, it can create mental, emotional, and physical health problems such as anxiety and depression, substance use issues, sleep problems, pain, and bodily complaints such as muscle tension. Below, the mental health expert Noel McDermott looks at the impact of stress on the human body and how to manage anxiety better this National Stress Awareness Day.
UK Stress Statistics
- 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope 
- One in 14 UK adults (7%) feel stressed every single day 
- 1 in 5 people in the UK feel stressed more days a month than they don’t 
- 51% of adults who felt stressed reported feeling depressed, and 61% reported feeling anxious 
Psychotherapist Noel (right) says, “Stress is a normal physical reaction to the need to take action, and relaxation is its opposite when we need to recover from taking action. These two balance each other out, and both are needed.
It can be understood through polyvagal theory. In this, we have two nervous system responses – sympathetic (activated) and parasympathetic (relaxed).
Too much stress (activation) or stress that is around for too long can lead to overwhelm. Stress is also usefully understood as the release of two types of hormones into the body to stimulate us to take action: adrenaline and cortisol. Both these are part of what we understand to be fight-flight-freeze responses to threats.
Again, too much of them (either because of a sudden life-threatening emergency or because we are under pressure for too long) leads us from helpful action to unhelpful reaction and or shutdown.”
Too much stress, and in particular cortisol, has long been known to precipitate even severe psychiatric disorders such as psychosis, and management of stress is a key part of the treatment of long-term conditions such as these. Studies of identical twins show that stress management is the dividing line between one developing mental illness and the other not.
Stress is also linked to biological illness, as stress responses include inflammation and degradation of the immune system. Inflammation is a major precipitator of biological illness. Stress also manifests in physical symptoms, including muscle problems, stomach issues, rashes, and skin conditions in general. It also affects sleep, appetite and diet.
Gender issues in stress
There are gender issues in stress also, both in terms of what causes the stress and how it is manifested and is or is not managed. Stress in women shows in the presentation of more common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression and in men in the more severe mental illnesses and suicidal ideation and deaths.
Also, men will often act out with stress through alcohol or substance misuse and in anger or aggression. Women tend to express psychological distress in more help-seeking ways rather than in isolated and anti-social ways.
The impact of stress on the human body
Stress initially triggers a chemical reaction in us that’s known as the fight & flight response. In preparation to deal with these stressors, the nervous system releases hormones (including cortisol), which can set off a number of physical reactions such as:
- Increased heart rate
- Alterations in one’s breathing.
- Tightening of the muscles
- Dry mouth
- Hot/cold sweaty hands & feet
What works to manage and reduce stress responses? There is a significant and always-growing range of tools and resources available to manage stress responses and utilise better coping mechanisms. The emergent, evidence-based field of lifestyle medicine is clear about the four pillars of health and well-being in humans. 1 – Diet, 2 – Sleep, 3 – Exercise and 4 – Stress management.
How to manage stress better: Do’s and Don’ts.
- Recognise the signs and take action; some of the responses we have to too much stress are disastrously permanent, such as taking one’s own life.
- Talk to your friends, family, and boss/colleagues about feeling stressed (sharing with another human who cares about us produces reward hormones which are the opposite of stress hormones).
- Socialise more not less, as your body will reward this, and reward hormones help manage stress hormones.
- Learn psychological coping tips from CBT such as balanced thinking, behavioural activation (managing depression) and exposure work (managing anxiety) and relaxation techniques.
- Focus on good nutrition in terms of regularity of meals, managed quantity, and a good balance of nutrition through variety (try to maintain a 10% meat to 90% plant ratio) and maintain good hydration.
- Exercise regularly, and if possible, do this outside or in groups, such as yoga classes. If you have too much cortisol, do fight or flight exercises (sprinting, HIT, kickboxing, etc.).
- Learn mindful meditation (this reverses the epigenetic damage to the telomeres).
- Understand the signs of stress: sleep disturbance, alcohol or drug use, changes in mood, arguing all the time, feeling depressed or feeling anxious and on edge, ‘trigger happy’ around specific issues or life circumstances, immobilised and overwhelmed, having lots of small illnesses due to compromised immune functioning, avoiding our friends or work etc.
- Know your stressors (which is easy as they are pretty much the same for most people): money, relationships, work/school, big life changes (becoming a parent, for example), loneliness and isolation and work to manage their negative impact.
- Improve sleep hygiene.
- Learn self-compassion.
- Drink on it or use drugs to manage it (in fact, become abstinent the minute you see your own stress responses).
- Isolate yourself and avoid people and social situations.
- Overeat or diet to manage it.
- Use shopping therapy or any form of consumerism to manage stress (poverty is a big reason for stress reactions).
Mental health expert Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 30 years of working within the health, social care, education, and criminal justice fields. His company, Mental Health Works, provides unique mental health services for the public and other organisations. Mental Health Works offers in situ health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised teams to meet your needs –www.noelmcdermott.net.
-  https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/about-us/news/survey-stressed-nation-UK-overwhelmed-unable-to-cope
-  https://www.ciphr.com/workplace-stress-statistics/
-  https://www.ciphr.com/workplace-stress-statistics/
-  Mental Health Foundation and YouGov
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