Long-term stress can result in several health issues.
We all suffer from stress at different points in our lives. It is natural to feel stressed over a short period of time, and it can even be a good thing at times in that it can help you feel alert and focused in particular circumstances. “However, long-term stress can not only trigger or worsen mental health issues, but it can also damage physical health,’’ says Dr Ali Razzak, family medicine consultant and aesthetics expert at King’s College Hospital, Dubai.
“It so happens that when we feel stressed, we have a fight or flight response, and this stimulates the sympathetic nervous system that produces adrenaline and other chemicals in our bodies. These make the heart beat faster, the brain to be more alert, and muscles tenser,” he adds.
Dr Ali details the various health hazards related to extreme stress.
Dr Ali Razzak, family medicine consultant and aesthetics expert at King’s College Hospital, Dubai.
Stomach problems: When we have the fight or flight response, our digestive system is affected. This is because it's controlled by what is known as the enteric nervous system made up of nerves that communicate with the central nervous system in our brains. The digestive system shuts down the blood flow to the stomach altering the secretion of chemicals needed to digest food, causing digestive muscles to contract. That's why stress can lead to stomach aches, cramping, diarrhoea, and constipation, which can further lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Aches and pains: Muscle tension, headaches, and migraines are a common side effect of stress because it causes facial and scalp muscles to contract. This can cause aches and pains in our body, and it happens when the stress hormones and chemicals are released over a prolonged period of time. Other side effects can include difficulty when walking and uncontrollable shaking.
Cardiovascular problems: When excessively stressed, your cardiovascular system can become affected. And when the stress related hormones are activated, your heart rate and blood pressure go up. If this goes on over a long period of time, the high blood pressure can lead to increased vascular risks such as heart attacks and stroke.
Compromised immune system: Stress can cause increase in a hormone known as cortisol. This causes inflammation through the body, which reduces the overall ability of your immune system to fight infections caused by viruses and bacteria.
Over-eating or lack of appetite: Long periods of stress can lead to depression, and with that, you can either find comfort in eating, which results in obesity and poor diet. On the other hand, some people lose their appetite, which can lead to excessive weight loss, with significant nutritional problems.
Mental health issues: Stress can affect your mental health by altering your behaviour. While you might not realise it, others around you might say that you're becoming increasingly irritable or snappy at work. It might also cause you to have problems with your personal relationships.
Dr Ali suggests various ways to deal with stress:
Listen to your body and know whether what you’re going through is emotional or mental stress. Try to take control of the situation. This includes improving time management. This can also include taking an adequate lunch break while at work, or if you feel overwhelmed with the number of things to do, make a list of important tasks then tick them off one by one.
There's plenty of evidence to show that stress can be dealt with through exercising. Exercise helps clear your head and makes you fit and healthy. If you suffer from conditions like IBS due to stress, then it's advisable to keep a diary of the triggers that might start the symptoms.
Find time to relax and implement relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises. Meditation is also a good way of relieving stress. So, when you start feeling your heart beating fast and you feel unwell, take a break and practise any relaxation method to help control your heart rate.
Rely on friends and family – a support network. It's important to just have a chat with people close to you over a cup of tea to get things off your chest.
Finally, if you find that the stress is a bit too much for you, then it might be time to get some professional help. You can see your family medicine doctor or a psychologist for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. There are also stress management courses that can help ease things.
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