The Health Consequences of Chronic Stress and Ways to address the Stress

In this two part article we firstly explore some of the serious potential consequences of living with chronic stress followed by our ideas of different ways that might be used to address stress.  We differ in what works for each of us but we are hopeful you might find one or two helpful suggestions for yourself.

Part I The Hidden Toll of Chronic Stress

In our ‘always on the go’ modern world, stress has become an ever present but unwanted companion for many people. While short-term stress can be motivating and even beneficial, chronic stress takes a significant toll on our health. Here we explore the wide-ranging impacts of prolonged stress on various aspects of our well-being, from weight gain to mental health.

Stress and Weight Gain: The Connection

Have you ever found yourself reaching for comfort food during stressful times? You’re not alone. Chronic stress can lead to weight gain in several ways:

  • Stress eating: Heightened cortisol levels, hormone produced under stressful conditions, can increase appetite, particularly for high-calorie, sugary, and fatty foods.
  • Metabolic changes: Prolonged stress can slow metabolism, making it harder to burn calories.
  • Disrupted sleep: Stress often interferes with sleep, which can lead to hormonal imbalances that promote weight gain.

A number of studies have demonstrated the relationship between stress and weight gain over time. One example is found at [1].

Memory Problems Linked to Stress: How It Affects Your Brain

Ever felt like your mind goes blank during stressful situations? Chronic stress can have lasting effects on cognitive function:

  • It can impair the formation of new memories and the recall of existing ones.
  • Prolonged exposure to stress hormones can damage the hippocampus, a brain region crucial for memory.
  • Stress can interfere with concentration and decision-making abilities.

Research published in “Neurology” found that middle-aged adults with high levels of cortisol performed worse on memory tests and had slightly smaller brain volumes compared to those with normal cortisol levels [2].

Mental Health: Anxiety, Depression, and Insomnia Due to Stress

The impact of chronic stress on mental health is profound and well-documented:

Persistent stress can lead to anxiety symptoms with excessive worry and panic attacks and prolonged stress is a significant risk factor for developing clinical depression. Stress often disrupts sleep patterns causing insomnia with varying symptoms from difficulties falling asleep, early waking and being unable to get back to sleep.

This study shows that many different causes of stress have been shown to lead to depression [3].

The Immune System Under Stress: Increased Vulnerability to Illness

Your immune system is your body’s defence against illness but chronic stress can weaken this important protection:

  • Stress hormones can suppress the effectiveness of the immune system.
  • Chronic stress may lead to inflammation, a risk factor for developing various long term health conditions such as heart disase.
  • Stressed individuals may be more susceptible to viral infections and take longer to recover from illnesses.

One stress researcher, Sapolsky wrote,

“Stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions”.

A large meta-analysis of 300 studies found that the immune system was adversely affected in its various functions by stress [4].

Part II Empowering Yourself: Healthy Strategies for Managing Stress

While the health consequences of chronic stress can be serious there are many effective strategies to manage and reduce stress.

This second part of our article focuses on practical, evidence-based approaches to reduce stress and improve overall well-being.

Exercise and Stress Relief: Benefits and Tips

Regular physical activity has been shown in numerous studies to be one of the most effective stress-busting tools at our disposal. Exercise not only improves physical health but also has significant mental health benefits:

  • Reduces stress hormones: Exercise lowers cortisol levels and increases endorphins, the body’s natural mood elevators.
  • Improves sleep quality: Regular physical activity can help regulate sleep patterns, crucial for stress management.
  • Boosts self-confidence: Achieving fitness goals can enhance self-esteem and resilience.

Tips for incorporating physical activity into your routine:

  • Start small: A ten minute walk can make a difference especially if taken at the same time of day giving you a break from routine and a short time for just yourself.
  • It needs to be enjoyable whether it’s dancing, cycling, or yoga, if you enjoy it then you are more likely to continue with it.
  • Make it social: Joining friends or groups adds to motivation and provides additional social benefits.

Social Connection and Volunteering: Building a Support System

Human beings are inherently social creatures, and strong social connections play a vital role in stress management.

Sharing concerns with others can provide perspective and emotional relief. However ‘large’ your troubles loom, you are unlikely to be the only one to have experienced such a situation. Finding others who have suffered in the same way can be helpful in giving ideas on how to manage the situation. This can give a sense of belonging and reduce feelings of isolations that can accompany chronic stress.  The community you find in social connection can also be a source of great practical help where friends and family can offer tangible assistance during stressful times.

Volunteering in particular can be a powerful stress-reducer. A study in the “Journal of Happiness Studies” found that individuals who volunteered regularly reported higher life satisfaction and lower stress levels [5].

Strategies for enhancing social connections:

  • Schedule regular catch-ups with friends and family.
  • Join clubs or groups aligned with your interests.
  • Explore volunteer opportunities in your community.
  • Consider support groups if you’re dealing with specific stressors.

Creative Activities for Stress Reduction

Engaging in creative activities can be a potent antidote to stress. These pursuits offer a form of active meditation, allowing the mind to focus on the present moment giving respite from dwelling on the past or contemplating the future:

  • Art therapy: Drawing, painting, or sculpting can help express emotions and reduce stress.
  • Music: Both listening to and creating music can lower cortisol levels and blood pressure.
  • Writing: Journaling or creative writing can help process emotions and gain perspective.

Ideas for incorporating creativity into your stress management routine:

  • Keep a stress journal to track and process your emotions.
  • Create a playlist of calming or uplifting music.
  • Try adult colouring books, which have gained popularity for stress relief.
  • Hobbies: Many of us have hobbies we have set aside but may be easier to pick up if we have a mind. Returning to an activity that was once familiar can help bring a sense of calm. Alternatively, explore new hobbies that you might like to try. Photography, gardening and various crafting are popular.

Mindfulness and Meditation: Techniques for Relaxation

Mindfulness and meditation practices have gained significant attention for their stress-reducing benefits:

  • Regular meditation can lower anxiety levels and improve emotional regulation.
  • Mindfulness practices can improve concentration, focus and cognitive flexibility.
  • These techniques help identify stress triggers and reactions to which you can develop avoidance or management techniques.

There are many apps to be found that can allow you to explore the following techniques:

  • Deep breathing exercises: Practice slow, deep breaths for a few minutes daily.
  • Body scan meditation: Gradually focus on each part of your body, releasing tension.
  • Mindful eating: Pay full attention to the experience of eating savouring each bite.
  • Guided imagery: Use audio guides to imagine peaceful, calming scenes.

Additional Stress Management Strategies

Time Management:

  • Prioritise tasks and learn to say no to unnecessary commitments.
  • Break large projects into smaller, manageable steps.
  • Use tools like calendars and to-do lists to stay organized.

Healthy Sleep Habits:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Limit screen time before bed.

For more details read our articles https://goingforold.org.uk/sleep/

Nutrition:

  • Eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol, which can exacerbate stress symptoms.
  • Stay hydrated; dehydration can increase stress hormone levels.

For more details read our articles https://goingforold.org.uk/nutrition-food-diet/

Professional Help:

If you are struggling to manage stress becoming overwhelmed by it then please see you GP. Amongst other sources of assistance they may suggest therapy or counselling for more personalised stress management strategies. In particular, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective for stress management.

Conclusion: Your Path to Stress Resilience

Managing stress is a personal journey, and what works best will vary from person to person. The key is to experiment with different strategies and find a combination that suits your lifestyle and preferences. Remember, small, consistent steps can lead to significant improvements in your stress levels and overall wellbeing.

By incorporating these healthy stress management strategies into your daily life, you can build resilience against the negative impacts of chronic stress. Whether it’s through regular exercise, nurturing social connections, exploring creative outlets, or practicing mindfulness, you have the power to take control of your stress levels and improve your quality of life.

We would like to emphasise that managing stress is not a luxury but a crucial part of maintaining your overall health and well-being. If you’re struggling with chronic stress, don’t hesitate to seek support from healthcare professionals.

References:

[1] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/oby.21733

[2] Echouffo-Tcheugui, J. B., Conner, S. C., Himali, J. J., Maillard, P., DeCarli, C. S., Beiser, A. S., … & Seshadri, S. (2018). Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures: The Framingham Heart Study. Neurology, 91(21), e1961-e1970.

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9315834/  Different Areas of Chronic Stress and Their Associations with Depression

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/

[5] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18321629/