Your Health A-Z


How stress affects you

At some stage all of us suffer from stress but it’s what you do with it that counts. Dr Luke Bush, medical officer at the emergency centre of Mediclinic Constantiaberg, explains how stress affects you and how to cope with it.

There was a time when our bodies needed stress. It was an animal instinct that helped us to survive in a world of predators and other attackers. Today sabre-tooth tigers may no longer be high on our worry list, but our bodies have remained hard-wired to react to stress and we have plenty of it.

Take alarm clocks, rush-hour traffic, deadlines, financial crises, family dramas or crime in the news. Your body can interpret all of these as threats, which is why you may feel under attack when stressed. The good news is that if you understand stress, you can manage it.

How does stress work?
To understand stress you need to know about our fight-or-flight response. If you are out for a run, for example, and a dog suddenly barks from behind a fence, or you stand on a stick that looks like a snake, you might jump out of your skin, your heart will pound, you’ll sweat and become super alert.

This is your body’s reaction to a perceived threat. Your brain sends the alarm that prompts your adrenal glands to release a cocktail of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, to make you battle-ready. The adrenaline has the short-term effect of boosting your heart rate and blood pressure, and gives you an emboldening rush of energy, while the cortisol has a longer-lasting effect of increasing the sugar levels in your bloodstream, readying the body to repair itself and shutting down the functions you wouldn’t need if you were fighting or fleeing. It thus suppresses the digestive system, immune system, reproductive system and growth processes.

Why is stress so bad for me?
In an ideal world stress should be short-lived. Once you’d realised that all is well, the body would ease up on stress hormones, your heart rate and blood pressure drop back to normal, and other systems would return to their regular activities. However, if you’re going through a time of stress when you are constantly on edge and feeling nervous and tense, your body will stay in a state of fight or flight, giving you an overdose of stress hormones, and compromising and suppressing almost all your body’s processes.

‘In times of prolonged or severe stress, these hormones start to affect our functioning negatively,’ says Dr Bush. ‘This can have both short- and long-term consequences for our health. In the emergency centre I see patients daily with various symptoms that can be attributed to stress. Often patients don’t realise this may be the cause of their symptoms, which often remain unidentified and can recur.’

What are the symptoms of stress?
‘People under significant or prolonged stress, that they would consider normal, may experience health problems that doctors would call somatic symptoms of their stress,’ says Dr Bush.

‘Almost any symptom you can think of could be attributed to stress. Your body is trying to tell you it is not coping with the stress by exhibiting symptoms and signs to get your attention, and hopefully that of your doctor!’

What is the best way to manage stress?
‘Do you know what stresses you? If you can identify your stressors and how they affect you, you can start to deal with them,’ says Dr Bush.

Here are some tips for coping with stress:
• Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, and don’t fall into the temptation of drinking alcohol, smoking or eating to relieve your stress.
• Keep your sense of humour.
• Socialise regularly with good friends.
• Get help from a professional counsellor.
• Relax by taking up meditation, yoga or t’ai chi.
• Manage your time effectively.
• Do things you enjoy.

If you don’t look after yourself and address stress, it can lead to these health complications:
• Sleeping difficulties
• Problems with the digestive system
• The worsening of skin conditions such as eczema
• Headaches
• Pain in the upper body or arms
• Depression
• Heart disease
• Sexual dysfunction
• A compromised immune system
• Stomach ulcers
• Alcohol abuse
• Asthma

How’s how Dr Bush copes with stress
‘I do shifts in a 24-hour emergency centre. The work, although rewarding, can be stressful and I have to deal with some very difficult situations. For me it is very important to get enough sleep to recover from a shift, and to speak to friends and family. Having people at work and at home who can see when something is not right keeps me on the straight and narrow. Reading gives me a good mental break, and I know I must get out on my bicycle or go for a run three times a week to de-stress and find balance.’

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