The Impact of Stress on Health and How to Manage It

More than any time in human existence the role of stress in our lives has become increasingly intertwined with our sense of wellbeing and overall health. The pressures of home and work life have made it increasingly difficult for many people to manage the stress they are under. 

In severe cases, stress causes mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. It also impacts our physical health and can be a contributory factor in the development of conditions such as heart disease and even cancer. 

Here we look more closely at stress, what causes it and how we can all manage it a lot better by taking a functional medicine approach.

What is Stress and What Can Cause It?

Only 29% of us say that we are confident in handling high levels of stress. The truth is that stress is a natural human reaction to potential threats and it can be highly useful, focusing our concentration and making us more aware of the world around us. 

A feeling of stress often occurs when we are in a situation that is out of the ordinary or abnormal. In the modern world, we frequently feel it when there are changes at work or we’re under pressure to perform or meet targets. 

In today’s society, more and more people are being exposed to high levels of chronic stress, a situation where we find ourselves almost always at a heightened level of arousal. This can have an impact on psychological, emotional, physical and biological health.

Woman displaying signs of stress

How to Identify the Signs of Stress

We’re capable of absorbing a lot of stress as individuals and we often shake things off as a normal part of life. When stress becomes a chronic issue, however, people can start to exhibit clear signs of being unwell. 

  • They may change behavior. For example, some people will find themselves drinking or smoking more to cope with the pressure they are under. 
  • They may be more argumentative, feel isolated, exhibit signs of depression or heightened anxiety when in certain situations. 
  • People can have difficulty concentrating, leading them to make poor decisions at important times and have trouble remembering things. 
  • They may also exhibit physical symptoms such as being more susceptible to colds and flu and have higher blood pressure. There can also be changes in libido.

How Does Stress Affect Health?

Too much stress can cause us to tense up which then leads to headaches. The stomach will start to produce more acid ending up in heartburn. We breathe quicker and, over the long-term, our immune defences become compromised. 

Chronic stress has many different facets and these often create a circle of symptoms. For example, it wears us down over time, making us more emotional and prone to mental health conditions such as depression. We may start to eat unhealthily and lose interest in exercise, which can in turn have negative consequences. Men can suffer from erectile dysfunction while women might experience a disruption in their menstrual cycle. 

If someone has a pre-existing condition like asthma, this can be made worse by chronic stress. Stress hormones can also constrict the arteries causing higher blood pressure which, over an extended period, damages arteries and can lead to heart disease.

How to Manage Stress

Often when we are subjected to high levels of stress, we’ll look for remedies. In everyday life, this could mean having a glass or two of wine to relax or find pleasure from ‘comfort eating’ some of our favorite foods.

If someone is treated by a traditional medical approach, they may also be given drugs to calm anxiety or to combat feelings of depression. Pills might be taken to achieve a better night’s sleep. Individual symptoms such as high blood pressure are also often treated as separate conditions, often with medication. 

The best way to manage stress and reduce its impact on all aspects of our lives is to take a functional medicine approach. This looks at the root cause of the stress and how this can be solved, rather than treating each symptom as an individual entity. 

For example, a functional medicine approach may look at the individual’s work-life balance and how this can be better managed. It could include therapies such as mindfulness and counselling that give us a deeper understanding of our stress triggers and how to cope with them. 

This approach can have a better chance of lasting success as it treats the individual and the underlying cause to help improve things.

When to Seek Help

Many of us soldier on and ignore stress, not understanding the damage it is doing to our physical, biological and mental health. It’s easy for stress to get out of control and it’s important to seek help sooner rather than later.