How Does Stress Impact Mental Health?
Today is National Stress Awareness Day 2020 and with the UK going into a full nationwide lockdown tomorrow it seems likely that many of us are feeling pretty stressed at the moment! Although stress is something we all experience and a totally normal experience (low level stress can actually be useful for boosting your motivation and cognitive function), chronic stress has a negative effect on both our bodies and our minds and when it accumulates over time we can begin to feel burnt out & overwhelmed. At this point stress may begin to develop into, or exacerbate, a more serious mental health condition so it's important we try to identify and reduce stress in our lives before this happens. If we are already having difficulties with our mental health then reducing stress can also help us to feel more resilient and able to cope with the challenges life throws at us, a useful tool in today's climate when many of us are experiencing a whole range of emotions caused by the pandemic and it's effect on each of our lives.
What is stress?
Stress happens in our bodies when we react to feeling threatened or under pressure, and as you can imagine this can be caused by a huge range of triggers. Different things cause stress for different people as our reactions and responses to life are shaped by our genetic makeup & life experience, making us all unique. Sometimes a stress response is triggered by a physical threat as would commonly have been the case for many of our ancestors. When we perceive a physical threat our bodies have an automatic physiological reaction making us ready to fight, flee or freeze. During this response the hormones cortisol & adrenaline raise which suppresses our digestive system and speeds up our heart to pump more blood to our muscles so that we have a sudden burst of strength and energy should we require it. The rise in cortisol & adrenaline is what makes us feel stressed and after the perceived threat has passed our bodies are meant to naturally calm this response and return to a relaxed state and normal function.
In modern society, often our stress triggers and perceived threats are not physical or accute dangers, instead they are emotional, social or financial. When we feel extreme pressure, are trying to juggle a lot at once, overworking, overthinking or worrying about a situation we have no control over we can trigger a stress response that does not naturally run it's course. Our bodies still react with a fight or flight response but because the threat is perceived as ongoing the hormones cortisol & adrenaline continue to race around our bodies, resulting in us feeling stressed & anxious and causing damage to our health in the process.
Symptoms of Stress
There are a whole range of different stress symptoms, some emotional, some physical and some behavioural. These include:
feeling anxious or fearful
feeling depressed or low
feeling frustrated or irritable
becoming withdrawn or tearful
consuming more alcohol, cigarettes or drugs
feeling angry & aggressive
difficulties interacting with friends & family
feeling indecisive & inflexible
nausea & indigestion
quick breathing & heart rate
aches & pains
lack of appetite
This is not an exhuastive list and everybody will experience stress differently.
How Does Stress Impact Mental Health
As you can see, there is an overlap in symptoms of stress and symptoms of many mental health conditions, making it hard to distinguish when one tips over into the other. If you struggle to manage or reduce stress then it can develop into a mental health condition such as PTSD, where the normal stress response gets disrupted after a traumatic event. The amygdala (responsible for fight & flight) keeps sounding the fear alarm long after the threat has passed resulting in flashbacks & feeling stuck in one's memory of the experience. Also, mental health conditions can cause stress as they can make everyday experiences more challenging, as well as adding extra commitments like medical appointments & managing medication, which can be triggers themselves.
Ways to Reduce Stress
There are 2 main approaches to reducing stress, the first is to manage the external pressures of stress and reduce your exposure to them, the second is to improve your emotional resilience.
To reduce external pressures you must first identify the problem areas that are stressing you out. It may be useful to write these down, think about appointments and recurrences as well as ongoing events & situations. Then think about what changes would make these events less stressful and review how you can be more proactive in putting these things in place. We often can't simply stop doing the stressful thing but we can think about when we do it (for instance some of us feel more capable in the morning & some in the evening) and we can make a list and learn to prioritise what is most important, only focusing on one task at a time. Try to be realistic with your time and give yourself breaks between tasks, it's easy to overload ourselves & get spend time worrying about our whole to do list when we are stressed but this will just exacerbate feelings and not actually help you to achieve more. Some things on your list you won't be able to change, it's important to identify these too so you can work on accepting the things you can't control and using your energy more productively on things you can.
There are many different ways to improve your emotional resilience and this is a topic I speak about often, so think about one area and begin making small improvements. Getting enough sleep, eating healthily (lots of fruit & veg), exercising, expressing your emotional needs & having fulfilling connection with others, asking for help & support when needed, using breathing or relaxation techniques, developing self compassion, & giving yourself breaks are all ways of developing emotional resilience. The idea is that when you are well cared for (by yourself) you have far more strength and capacity to deal with the stressful aspects of life and you will bounce back far quicker than before.
In reality both of these steps will need to be taken together and change may be slow and incremental. Remember to be kind to yourself and accepting of your progress, perfectionism & self criticism will only make you more stressed!
I am an Integrative Therapist who works remotely online with millennials who are anxious, lost, stressed or depressed. I work collaboratively with people to support them in their emotional wellbeing, to develop skills in self-care and to foster a deeper understanding of themselves. If you would like to find out how I can help you to understand your emotions better, please book a free consultation to see if we are well suited to work together.
Alternatively, please come connect with me over on Instagram - I would love to get to know you further.