This is what happens to your body when you’re feeling stressed

Written by Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

To mark National Stress Awareness Day, we put your most frequently asked questions about stress to a number of experts. Here’s what they had to say.

The world is a pretty stressful place to be right now. From the cost of living crisis to the chaotic political climate, there’s a lot going on – and that can have a knock-on effect on our mental health and wellbeing.

With this in mind, it’s more important than ever that we educate ourselves about stress, including the impact stress can have on our physical and mental health, and arm ourselves with the tools we need to take care of ourselves and avoid burnout where possible.

So, without further ado, here’s Stylist’s guide to the basics, from how stress works in the body to the differences between stress and burnout.

What is stress?

Stress puts our body into ‘fight or flight’ mode.

Defined by the Mental Health Foundation as “the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that unmanageable,” stress is our body’s response to exterior pressures, whether that’s from a specific situation or wider life event.

“When we feel stressed our body goes into fight or flight mode and releases the same hormones as when we’re under attack,” says Richard Holmes, Director of Wellbeing at Westfield Health. “These hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, prioritise what we need to get out of that situation, raising our heart rate, blood pressure and increasing the amount of sugar in the bloodstream.”

It’s important to remember that stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the stress response is what helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive by giving them the endurance and energy to escape threats.

How does stress affect the body?

As previously mentioned, when we feel stressed, our body releases hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, giving us that classic fight or flight response. It’s designed to help us escape physical threats – such as predators – so as well as raising our heart rate (which redirects blood flow and energy to the limbs) our body also takes its attention away from other systems.

These systems include the digestive, reproductive and immune systems, which is why periods of stress can make you more vulnerable to illness and more prone to bloating and digestive pain. The disruption of the reproductive system can also disrupt the menstrual cycle, leading to irregular periods.

“This response is great for helping us in short-term, emergency situations, but can have serious health impacts if that stress response stays switched on for long periods,” explains Holmes.

“From headaches and muscle ache to irregular periods and digestion issues, stress triggers a hormonal response that floods the body leading to far-ranging physical symptoms.”

He continues: “If you notice any of these issues or find yourself getting ill more frequently, it’s worth thinking first about whether you’ve been feeling stressed recently and invest in some relaxation time.”

Is stress ever good for us?

Some stress can actually be good for us.

Surprisingly, yes! Good stress, or “eustress”, as it is sometimes termed, is a kind of stress which produces positive feelings of excitement or fulfilment, and is usually brought on by challenges in life that stretch you to learn more and achieve something outside of your comfort zone.

“People are increasingly talking about stress in the workplace and how this can impact our health and wellbeing. It’s usually discussed as a negative; most of us equate stress with something bad. But stress can at times also be a positive,” says Alexandra Lichtenfeld, Business Mentor at Client Matters. “Eustress is ‘good stress’ and is usually a product of nerves which can be brought on by something challenging.”

“Eustress means you are on top of all the pressures in your life – work, family and social,” adds Dr Sarah Brewer, a medical nutritionist and author of Cut Your Stress. “You are getting enough stimulation and challenges to enjoy life, grow as a person and feel a sense of achievement at the end of each day.”

How to handle stress at work

Experiencing stress at work is a common occurrence, but if it starts getting in the way of your day-to-day life, or follows you home from the office, it’s probably time to address what’s going on.

“Whether we’ve had enough time to relax, how well we’ve managed to switch off from work and the amount of sleep we had the night before all shape how easy or difficult a day will seem,” says Mark Pinches, Head of Coaching at Westfield Health. 

“This need for ‘recovery time’ continues throughout the day. Whether it’s taking a micro-break talking to a colleague or going for a walk at lunch, ring-fencing this recovery time is key to staying relaxed and productive.”

“As well as preparing our bodies with enough recovery time, getting in the right mindset is essential,” he continues. “Biologically, we’re programmed to focus on the negative. But what used to be helpful to keep us out of harm’s way doesn’t always make for an enjoyable day at the office. Worrying about what might happen or assuming you’ll have a tough day almost guarantees the day will feel difficult, whatever actually happens.

“Combining enough rest and recovery time with the right mindset can completely change the way you perceive the day, making it more productive and enjoyable without the need for drastic changes to where or how you work.”

What’s the difference between stress and burnout?

You’ve probably heard of the term “burnout”  before, but when does particularly bad stress actually spiral into full-blown burnout?

“Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress,” explains Holmes. “Burnout is more than just feeling tired – it’s being completely exhausted, emotionally and physically, due to a prolonged period of strain.”

If you’re feeling completely exhausted, experiencing increased feelings of negativity towards your job, or finding it harder to complete your day-to-day work tasks, it might be time to consider whether you’re suffering from burnout, and taking steps to address it, whether that’s by talking to your manager about what’s going on (and asking for your workload to be reduced) or taking some time away from the office. You could also consider a visit to your GP. 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.

If you are struggling, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected] for confidential support.

Images: Getty

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