Stress can play havoc with our health and wellbeing, whether it’s because of a heavy workload, long hours or a bad manager. Although it’s natural to feel stressed at work sometimes, it can easily build up and get too much.
And while most of us recognise some symptoms of stress — feeling irritable and overwhelmed, for example — it can sneak up on us in other ways too. In some cases, chronic or sustained stress trigger or exacerbate mental and physical health problems.
Work-related stress is on the rise across the UK and Europe. Of a study of 5,800 working and non-working people across the UK, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, nearly two-thirds (64%) of those in work said their work-related stress levels had increased compared with pre-pandemic levels.
The research by the insurer AXA found eight out of ten (81%) people described themselves as having a “poor” or “low” state of mind.
“Considering the year we’ve all collectively experienced, it’s unsurprising to hear that the multiple lockdowns we’ve endured and the constant uncertainty of the pandemic has left us feeling more stressed,” says Kelly Feehan, Services Director at CABA, the wellbeing charity.
“Even before the first lockdown in 2020, our research found that 4 in 10 workers felt as though they were so stressed in their daily lives that they were close to breaking point. Now, with a staggering 1.9 million monthly Google searches related to stress, and a huge rise in searches for keywords such as ’stress symptoms’, ‘physical symptoms of stress’ we’re clearly looking for answers and guidance on the topic.”
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Why does stress affect us physically?
When we’re suffering from long-term stress, our body’s autonomic nervous system, which controls your heart rate, breathing, vision changes and more, is working overdrive.
“Whilst its built-in stress reaction — the ‘fight-or-flight response’ — is designed to help the body face stressful situations, overexposure can cause wear and tear. This can result in physical health issues,” Feehan says.
The constant release of stress hormones, including adrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline, can cause stomach problems, and muscular issues, and affect our menstrual cycles too.
The physical symptoms of stress include aches, pains and tense muscles, chest pain or feeling like your heart is racing, exhaustion or trouble sleeping, headaches, dizziness, trembling, high blood pressure and jaw clenching.
Research has shown stress can have a negative impact on the immune system too. In short bursts, the stress hormone cortisol can boost immunity by limiting inflammation, but over longer periods of time, too much cortisol can lead to more inflammation. Stress can also affect the immune system because it can reduce the effectiveness of white blood cells, which fight off viruses and bacteria.
As many people will have experienced, stress can lead to stomach problems like cramps and diarrhoea. This is because digestion is controlled by the enteric nervous system, which is made up of nerves that communicate with the central nervous system.
When our fight or flight response is activated, the central nervous system shuts down blood flow and alters the secretions needed to digest food. It can cause the digestive muscles to contract, leading to unwanted stomach issues.
“As well as these, long-term stress can lead to emotional and mental health symptoms, such as anxiety, irritability, depression, panic attacks and sadness,” says Feehan. “It’s incredibly important to listen to our bodies, especially if we’re experiencing any of the symptoms suggested above.”
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How to combat stress
Exercising and eating well is an important factor in combating stress. Although we shouldn’t deprive ourselves of treats, eating and sleeping well are huge mood boosters, and will help to keep things in perspective.
“It can be human nature for us to only think about what we haven’t achieved each day. Many of us judge our successes by how much work we’ve still got left to do. It’s important to always sit back and think about what you have actually achieved,” Feehan says.
“Set realistic goals for each day, week and month. Doing so will narrow your view and help you feel more in control of the moment and long-term tasks.”
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It’s also essential to set boundaries around your time too. Don’t be afraid to say "no" if you’re having additional tasks thrown at you. “For many of us, the fear of saying "no" to our colleagues, bosses and even family members and loved ones outweighs the fear of the additional stress this is likely to cause us,” Feehan says.
Self-care is often sniffed at but has never been more important. Simple things such as treating yourself to a long bath after a tough day, or even watching a couple of episodes of your favourite feel-good series will go a long way towards improving your mental wellbeing, and help you compartmentalise the negative emotions you may be experiencing.
And finally, ask for help and support if you need it. Speak to your GP if your stress is too much to cope with or if you are struggling with your mental health.