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Effects of stress

Stress can have a number of effects on a person

Stress can be mentally and physically draining, so prolonged or extreme stress can have a detrimental effect upon the body and the mind. Our stress advisor, Marianna Kilburn, discusses some of the emotional, physical, cognitive and behavioural effects of stress.

An introduction to the effects of stress

Stress affects people differently. Some cope with it well, whereas others appear to be constantly buckling under pressure.

It is important to recognise if stress is taking over your life or when you are unable to cope with your day to day problems. Symptoms of stress can be both emotional and physical.

Our body is good at coping with acute stress – for example, a short burst of fright when a door slams shut loudly. However, chronic, long-term stress is where the problem lies. It may not be as obvious as acute stress, but when present over a period of time it can have a damaging effect on health and wellbeing.

Emotional effects

If you wake up in a good mood, your day seems to go well and according to plan. However, if you wake up feeling a bit down or in a bad mood because of stress, it can seem as though everything is against you, no matter what you try to do to help yourself.

Stress affecting you emotionally will make you feel irritable and moody. You may feel overwhelmed by work, family problems or new experiences, finding it difficult to relax and switch off. Other problems, such as with relationships and feelings of isolation can arise, and these may develop into a sense of loneliness or depression.

Many people do not like to open up to others about the emotional symptoms they are experiencing but keeping things to yourself can cause emotions to worsen, or lead to further health problems.

Physical effects

People under stress can experience a wide variety of physical symptoms. For example, a stressed person may experience a bout of constipation or diarrhoea, although there may not be a physiological problem with their digestive tract.

They may also experience unexplained (or psychosomatic) aches and pains, or chest pain as well as difficulty breathing. These may develop into an anxiety attack with feelings of nausea, dizziness and rapid shallow breathing.

Pain in the neck and shoulders can be a common complaint with those under stress, as is lower back pain. These, and other unexplained muscle pains as well as stress headaches, are probably caused by an involuntary tightening or tension of muscles in these areas of the body.

People with pre-existing joint pains such as wear and tear arthritis may find that their pains worsen when under stress. This is because stress releases chemicals into the bloodstream which encourage inflammation.

Cognitive effects

Stress can affect the way you think, reason, react and respond to situations. It can also lead to sleeping problems, and this in turn will not help your mental or cognitive function.

You may find that your thinking is constantly ‘fuzzy,’ leading to difficulty concentrating, remembering, ordering or processing your thoughts correctly. If you are stressed you are likely to find that normal logical thought or reasoning becomes more difficult. This may lead to a loss of perspective to everyday problems, causing you to worry more.

Your performance at work and home suffers. Your ‘to-do’ list keeps racing through your mind, and you may find difficulty in focusing on one task. Being aware of pending deadlines only makes matters worse, creating in turn, more stress.

Difficulty with judgement and reasoning can also lead to you failing to make correct decisions which in turn can lead to a loss of self-confidence. This causes more stress and feeds the vicious cycle.

Behavioural effects

People under stress may unwittingly pick up behavioural and physical habits. Examples include biting or picking at nails, nervous tics or pacing up and down. Often, the stressed person is unaware of these habits, although signals are apparent to those around them.

Eating patterns can also change when under stress. This results in weight changes in both directions:

  • Stress can lead to a loss of appetite, anorexia and weight loss
  • On the other hand, some people binge on food when under stress

Sleep patterns are often directly affected by stress, and while some people find that they sleep too much, others find that they are unable to settle or quieten their mind for long enough to fall asleep or stay asleep.

While these behavioural effects may cause health problems, there are other habits which may have a more serious effect on lifestyle and health. Often stressed people find that they become more anxious and unable to cope with being around other people.

This causes them to stop communicating or socialising, even with their nearest and dearest, leading to a strain on relationships. This is typically be seen with business or work stress.

For some, relief from stress may be found when using addictive substances such as alcohol and drugs. While these may help symptoms temporarily, they usually lead to further problems as they are depressants and in the long run will damage both your physical and mental health.

Physical illnesses

It is now known that stress is an important factor in a long list of illnesses ranging from minor health complaints such as a skin rash or eczema, to life-threatening problems such as heart disease and cancer.

These effects are usually seen over long periods of time, but it has been known that acute stressful events can lead heart attacks or strokes.

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