When we’re stressed out, there are physical and mental signals that make the state of stress an obvious one: headaches, worrying about whatever it is that is causing concern, difficulty concentrating, feeling irritable, and maybe even feeling generally ill. These are all symptoms of how your body is reacting to a stressful situation. So, what is actually happening, physiologically, to our bodies when it is under mental stress to create these uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating symptoms?
What is actually happening to my body when I’m stressed?
When we’re stressed, our brains know something is threatening our wellbeing, but it doesn’t completely compute the nuanced or modern threat we’re experiencing. Instead, it has a much more primitive read on the situation: essentially, you are under threat of immediate attack. Your nervous system hits high alert and releases stress hormones that produce the adrenaline and cortisol you would need to get away from present threat very quickly. At one time in the human experience, this may have been an animal. So, regardless of the (non)existence of a physical threat (which may well be the case, but typically when we’re stressed it is due to a mentally-encroaching situation), our bodies will prepare to act. This is commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
As the adrenaline and cortisol levels heighten, you’ll feel your heart rate increase, muscles tighten, breath quicken and can even experience blurred vision and a rushing sound in the ears. So, what happens when you don’t exert the energy by physically fighting something or running away from it? You experience the symptoms of the stress in other ways; from headaches to panic attacks, and plenty of individualised responses in between.
Sometimes, stress can also cause our senses to become sharper, and can even be honed into positive responses like increased productivity. However, it’s not a sustainable way of being and we often see people experiencing burn out after running on stress-induced adrenaline.
What are the most common physical symptoms of stress?
In the moment, stress responses can vary from person to person. Aside from the aforementioned symptoms, you can also experience gut issues (from difficulties with digestion, to increased or decreased bowel movements), migraines, immune issues (you might find that you get cold-like symptoms when you are stressed) and difficulty sleeping.
In the long term, stress-related health issues tend to become more common across the board. Without taking the steps to mitigate stress in your life, or working on productive ways to counter the effects of stress, you will find that the physical response is more severe health issues such as heart problems, high blood pressure and higher risk of stroke. Increased blood pressure, plus sugar and fat in the heart, makes the heart work harder and can increase the risk of clots forming in the heart (heart attack) and brain (stroke).
What are the most common mental health symptoms of stress?
Stress itself is a mental health issue. As mentioned earlier, while physical issues can be the catalyst for the stress response, it’s how you mentally process a situation that makes it stressful. However, the way stress manifests is in the form of other mental health issues. This can be equally individualised as physical responses, but most often it will develop as irrational or incessant thought process (often regardless or in direct contradiction to the facts of a situation – such as, a co-worker criticising a component of your work can be interpreted as you being terrible at your job, or that the co-worker doesn’t like you personally). It can also create panic attacks, anxiety and fear both in the moment and as an ongoing mental health condition.
There are many ways to work on stress, and it all comes down to your individual reaction to stress and your response to the available treatment options. If you want to work on finding the best options for you, speak to our friendly team at CK Health and begin your journey to a life where you have control over response to stress, rather than stress having control over your life and health.