Ask any health professional to share their best advice for a long, healthy life, and you can bet they'll tell you to eat well, exercise regularly, get enough sleep and stress less. Being constantly or frequently stressed has been linked to a variety of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, obesity, asthma, diabetes and depression.
If you often find yourself anxious, tense and overwhelmed, it could be taking its toll on your health – and your body will let you know.
Here's what to look out for…
Sudden, out of character emotional reactions like bursting into tears or snapping over something small (‘what do you mean the café has run out of blueberry muffins?!'), could be a sign that you're stressed. When we feel stress the body goes into 'fight or flight' mode to ready itself for danger, which explains why when we're wound up tight we can be quick to anger or cry. Calming activities like yoga, meditation and breathing exercises can help, as can exercise, which is a proven stress releaser.
Stress can keep the mind in a state of hyper-arousal, where the balance between sleep and wakefulness is thrown out of whack. In a cruel irony, insomnia sufferers often worry about not being able to sleep which only adds to the problem. If a bout of sleeplessness begins at the same time as a stressful period in your life, the two could be linked. Staying away from screens and keeping the lights low at least two hours before bed and smelling lavender oil may aid relaxation and help you to doze off.
In stressful situations the adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol which increases appetite. We also try to self-soothe when things get tough, so we tend to reach for the nearest comfort food – often anything packed with sugar. But frequent poor diet choices can take a toll: people who eat a diet high in sugar and trans-fats are more likely to develop health problems such as high blood pressure, which in turn can lead to heart attack and stroke.
Research has shown that we're more likely to get a cold or have a flare-up of a health problem like migraines or inflammatory disease after a period of intense stress. This is because the hormones released in the body in response to stress can reactivate viral infections in the body, and also due to the drop in cortisol following the stressful event, which can trigger pain-related issues like arthritis. Stress also has an inflammatory effect on the body, which makes us more susceptible to coming down with something.
A tension headache – a dull, throbbing pain and tightness usually across the forehead, back of the head or neck – can be an indicator you're feeling stressed. The causes of stress headaches are varied; it could be due to a tightening of the jaw, neck or shoulder muscles, dehydration or fatigue.