The Serious Effects of Stress

Stress is bad for the skin, bad for your immune system, and plays a role in obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other illnesses1. The conundrum is that stress is a word that is flung around loosely, to mean unpleasant things, and at the same time seemingly unavoidable. What is stress, and how can we meaningfully manage this problem?

What is stress, and why do we get stressed?

Stress is not simply “feeling bad” or “in your head.” It is a real physiological response that changes your body chemicals, and has real short and long term effects on your health. The body under stress produces a concoction of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine which basically puts it into emergency high alert mode--drawing resources away from maintenance, healing, and regeneration, even digestion, concentrating it into reaction time, increased energy, and increased strength until the stressful event is over. Stress is a physiological response to a threat, real or perceived. The fight or flight response is triggered, and we can become more agitated and aggressive to others (fight), or conversely avoid problems (flight). These are powerful physiological changes that can be overwhelming in the case of acute stress. Today stress is often thought of as synonymous with “feel bad” but it is an important function for survival, and we’re the descendants of ancestors who survived by being able to trigger these responses in emergencies.

In the modern world, we have less physical threats in our environment like predators but we perceive many more threats that don’t go away as quickly as predators do (you either become lunch or make it back to the village, but either way the stressing situation resolves rather quickly). Modern stressors are things like workplace deadlines, exam crams, relationship problems, financial uncertainty, and even generalized anxiety which tend to be chronic and persistent sources of stress. Although these seem much less of an “emergency” and a threat to our existence, our stress response triggers in the same way. It’s as if the menacing lion is constantly in your peripheral vision and you’re constantly on high alert. This has negative consequences to our health. In short, our stress response system is ancient, and not updated to the current version for use in the modern world.

What happens under stress?

Stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine help increase physical performance. It numbs pain (temporarily) activates muscles and increases blood flow. At the same time, basic functions like digestion, cell regeneration, and even brain function are reduced, so your judgment will be clouded, and your immune system will be weakened, leaving you prone to illness. The long term effects of increased stress hormones can lead to various problems like depression, weakened immune response, general exhaustion, indigestion, increased risk of heart disease, and even sexual dysfunction like impotence. In the context of skincare, we know that numerous conditions like psoriasis, eczema, and acne are triggered by stress, and the skin and hair can lose its glow and lustre when under chronic stress. Premature aging is also another symptom of untreated chronic stress.

What triggers stress?

Called stressors, there are seemingly an endless number of them, which vary from person to person. Stressors can be triggered by major changes in one’s life, which isn’t necessarily traumatic or bad--even great news can act as stressors at times. Some common stressors include:

  • Death of friend, family, pet, etc.
  • Physical illness
  • Marriage/Divorce
  • Birth of a child/Pregnancy/Abortion
  • Financial difficulty
  • Changes in work or employment status, loss of job, retirement
  • Relationship problems
  • Generalized anxiety or fear
  • Other traumatic event

How to fight stress:

In broad strokes, you can take measures to reduce and fight stress, remove the source of stress, and finally, seek medical or psychological intervention. Most of the time we focus on ways to reduce stress, and it’s often the best approach, but it’s important to consider other intervention depending on your situation and how severely stress may be impacting you.

Reducing Stress: These are activities and lifestyle choices that we can consciously change to reduce stress levels, and also to combat the negative effects of stress. This is generally what we’re looking for to “fight stress.” For generalized stress and low to moderate stress, making these small lifestyle changes can work wonders.

  • Exercise--Supported by overwhelming evidence as one of the best stress busters, exercise is at the top of the list
  • Balanced Diet--Diet often suffers as we crave sugars and fat under stress, but these are poor crutches that actually drain energy away
  • Habit change--Replace bad habits (usually learned responses to stress) like alcohol, excessive caffeine, with healthier alternatives like exercise, meditation, yoga, and hiking
  • Relaxation techniques--yoga, meditation, and other forms of relaxation are becoming more widely accessible, and are effective at reducing stress
  • Socialize--Make a conscious effort to talk to family and friends
  • Reframing--Stuck in public transport or a traffic jam? Think of the time as an opportunity to think without distractions or use it to relax
  • Perspective--It’s easy to lose perspective under stress, and relatively small problems can feel impossibly straining. Remind yourself about the important things that you should be grateful about--having a loving family, friendships, good general health, and so on

Identify and remove the stressor: Many sources of stress don’t go away on their own--unlike the predator problem which will sort itself out “naturally,” most modern problems need to be dealt with proactively. Whether it stems from a problem with relationships, family, finance, or a noisy neighbor, they tend not to go away on their own, and ignoring the problem often makes it worse.

  • Identify the problem. Understand that there often isn’t a singular identifiable cause. The stressor might be internal--it’s not always something outside of you.
  • If there is a problem that can be identified, think about concrete steps to improve the situation. Often when things feel overwhelming, you need to start with baby steps and accumulate some “small wins” to gain momentum.
  • Sometimes the problem cannot be simply removed, and you might require help from friends, family, or an outsider expert like a counsellor.
  • Depending on the problem, you may be able to modify how you perceive and cope with the problem.

Medical or other professional intervention: Long-term or chronic stress has serious negative consequences. Finally, the possibility that stress comes from or is associated with depression, or other mental illnesses should not be dismissed. If you feel completely overwhelmed, it’s important to consider at least talking to a professional to seek the next steps to treatment.

  • When things feel overwhelming, or you feel a loss of control, you should at least consider counselling.
  • It is possible that when stress is overwhelming or debilitating, some type of mental illness may be the actual cause.