Stress is something a lot of Australians experience. That uncertain feeling in your stomach, your mind constantly shifting, nothing to pinpoint a thought or idea. It keeps you awake at night, staring at the ceiling.
Everyone is different and stress impacts everyone differently.
In this blog, we explore what stress is, how it can affect you and what the health problems are associated with it. We look at effective ways with daily living aids to cope with stress in our everyday lives.
What is stress?
Stress is the expected reaction for an individual who is overcome with a challenging or even dangerous situation. Stress is an internal response to an imbalance between demands made and the resources available to meet those demands.
Stress levels vary depending on the particular situation, for example, the pressure associated with the fear of failure. The greater the importance of the outcome to any given situation the more stress an individual may feel.
Stress triggers the physiological response of “fight or flight” discussed by Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon. This response is a natural reaction of individuals preparing themselves for potential danger. It is because it is a natural response that stress is seen as a “process not a diagnosis”. When this process occurs, hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released, causing an individual’s heart rate, metabolism and breathing rate to increase.
Impact of stress on your heart
The human body is designed to experience and subsequently cope with varying levels of stress, producing an appropriate response and reaction to it. Short-term, immediate stress can have certain positive effects such as motivation, increased productivity and an ability to minimise danger.
But, in situations where an individual is challenged with continuous and demanding stimulus without a chance for a relaxation or relief, the individual will consequently experience prolonged stress.
Unlike immediate stress, prolonged stress can become damaging on an individual’s physical and mental health. Additionally, research has demonstrated that there is an association between cardiac complications and prolonged stress. Stress leads to a rise in blood pressure and affects the way that blood clots, leading to an increased risk of a heart attack.
Dr. Deepak Bhatt, director of the Integrated interventional Cardiovascular Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, discusses how extreme levels of stress, though rare, can lead to an immediate heart attack. He refers to this condition as “broken heart syndrome”.
Broken heart syndrome is cardiovascular damage that sparks from acute and severe forms of stress. Dr Bhatt suggests that stress can trigger inflammation within an individual which is a key instigator in heart disease, although this theory hasn’t been fully proven yet, stress “does cause people to act in certain ways that increase their risk for heart disease” Dr. Bhatt says.
The association between stress and heart health is also apparent in individuals who engage in the prolonged use of both legal and illicit substances or other anti-social behaviours to try and relieve their stress. This can include eating, alcohol consumption, gambling, tobacco and prohibited drugs that, with excessive use, can have damaging effects on the heart and the mental wellbeing of an individual. Without relieving stress levels and allowing the body to return to a more centred, relaxed state, these substances and behaviours keep the individual trapped in a damaging stress cycle.
5 major stress warning signs
Being able to spot the symptoms and warning signs that you are under stress can help you minimise the impact associated with prolonged stress. It is important to remember that an individual can show both physical, as well as mental and emotional signs to stress. Physical symptoms from stress can affect everything from your hormones to your heart and signs can come in the form of:
- Pain or tension in your head, chest, stomach or muscles,
- Reproductive problems,
- Changes to your heart rate and blood pressure.
Emotional and mental symptoms can make it difficult for an individual to complete their normal responsibilities. Signs can come in the form of:
- Depression, anxiety or constant worrying,
- Restlessness/ trouble sleeping,
- Decreased productivity and poor decision making.
3 best tips to manage your stress
1.Stay positive and unplug: research has shed light on the value of positive mental health and its link to overall physical wellbeing. Staying positive and maintaining higher levels of happiness can be key in lowering levels of stress.
This is as easy as laughing. Laughter has been proven to lower levels of stress hormones, which reduces inflammation in an individual’s arteries overall, reducing an individual’s chances of heart complications.
Coupled with this is the necessity to unwind and have some down-time. It’s almost impossible to remove stress when it is following you throughout your daily routine. In other words, “Cut the cord and escape the world!” At some point in the day, usually after work, try and avoid emails, TV news and anything that is a cause of stress.
Even 10- 15 mins of this down-time can have large impacts on your stress levels. Ultimately, remember that it is not selfish to allocate time for yourself!
2.Meditate: the practice of self-reflection and inward-focused thought coupled with relaxation and deep breathing has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and its associated factors such as blood pressure.
Any individual can meditate. With the modern ability to access (and learn) meditation content now online in the form of applications on your mobile or video tutorials on social platforms, it is now easier than ever to start meditating. Just get a fitness/yoga mat and you are good to go!
Mobile apps such as Headspace have a daily guided walk through that help with self-reflection of your day. Just a few minutes a day of closing your eyes, focusing on your breathing and reflecting on your day can help with lowering your stress levels.
3.Exercise and healthy diet: research has linked the benefits that healthy living and diet have on an individual’s stress levels. Every time you exercise your body releases endorphins, a mood-boosting chemical. Just 30 min of exercises a day at home will benefit you. Why not try a pedal exerciser? Or get some dumbbells? Those are functional pieces of equipment that can improve your fitness from the comfort of your home.
This is also present when you eat healthy food. Exercise not only reduces your stress levels but also comes with the added benefit that it protects you against heart disease and other physical complications as it lowers your blood pressure, strengthens your heart muscles, and helps you maintain a healthy weight.
Stress is a normal condition and not a mental health illness.
In this blog we outlined helpful tips to manage stress which can help you understand your body's signals and learn to recognise your stressors so you can deal with it. Just remember a few minutes a day may be all it takes to reduce stress and live a happier, healthier life!