Brings on headaches
If you have any vulnerability such as being prone to getting headaches or migraines, this is going to flare up.
Also, inflammation is a key component of migraines, Donnai adds: “Any inflammatory reaction in our system is normally well controlled, until we get stressed.”
Plus, headaches can be caused by stress-induced muscular tension in our neck.
Try relaxation exercises, or unwind with yoga or Pilates. On the whole, simple pain killers that you can buy over the counter, such as ibuprofen, paracetamol and aspirin, will usually work to resolve a tension headache within 20 minutes.
For stronger treatment, consult your GP.
Cardiovascular risk and blood pressure rise
When we experience acute stress – whether during physical exercise, because we’ve had a fright, or if we have experienced some significant acute mental stress, such as being the victim of a crime, our body reacts by releasing adrenaline, says Dr. Rahul Potluri , consultant cardiologist at the Royal Devon University Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.
“It increases the heart rate, increases blood pressure, and keeps other aspects of the body alert, such as the muscles, the eyes and other sensory organs.”
But chronic stress – in particular psychological chronic stress – can be exact a severe toll on our heart and blood pressure. If you are the type of personality who is constantly stressed about little things, he says, “Over time, that leads to cardiovascular risk factors, such as increased blood pressure, because the arteries get so used to the fluctuations that they start to stiffen up or they can’t relax as much as they normally would.”
That makes you more susceptible to hypertension, which, Potluri says, “is a risk factor for strokes and heart attacks.”
Relaxation techniques and exercises can make a difference, advises Potluri. Regular exercise can help reduce blood pressure as well as relieve stress. Start small and build up. Maintain a healthy weight and cut down on salt intake, as it makes your body hold on to water, further raising your blood pressure.
Disruption of digestion – triggers IBS
Stomach pain, reflux, indigestion, gas and a change in bowel habits can all get a grip on our guts when we’re stressed. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), is common among those who are chronically stressed.
“Stress changes the gut’s bacterial profile, and gut bacteria play a critical role in digestion, motility [ability to move independently] and other key functions,” says Storoni. The autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls unconscious processes like your breathing and heartbeat, also modulates the gut’s normal physiology.
And when we are chronically stressed, our ANS is not regulating some of these things like it does in a healthy person. Inflammatory conditions affecting the gut, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, can also be exacerbated by chronic stress.
Eat slowly, sitting down, aiming to spend at least 20 minutes on a meal. Hypnotherapy, meditation and counseling can all help ease IBS. Gentle exercise can also work wonders. See your doctor to rule out inflammatory gut issues and other more ominous problems.
Affects sleep patterns
“Sleep is one of the key victims of stress,” says Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at the University of Oxford and author of Life Time: The New Science of the Body Clock, and How It can Revolutionize Your Sleep and Health.
“The natural pattern of human sleep is to wake up several times a night. But the problem for people who are stressed and anxious is that when they wake up, their mind is immediately flooded with all the reasons why they’re stressed – and they then can’t get back to sleep,” he says.
Sleep disruption then exacerbates the problem. “If you get short sleep, you’re going to drive the stress response even higher to cope with the fact that you haven’t had the sleep you need,” adds Foster. Thus overriding the sleep drive.
Try cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) a structured program that helps people identify thoughts and behaviors that make sleep problems worse, then replace them with “healthy” alternatives.
Try the Sleepio app, which offers an online sleep improvement program that you can tailor to your needs. Consider “sleep restriction” – go to bed only when sleepy and get up as soon as you wake up. Follow the “15-minute rule” – if you can’t sleep after 15 minutes, get up rather than tossing and turning.
Linked to weight gain
Imagine, says Storoni, thousands of years ago, you’re fleeing a sabre-toothed tiger. “You’re getting tired as you run, but you want to make sure there’s enough sugar for the brain to stay sharp and stay alive,” she says.
“A stress response helps to keep the brain supplied with sugar by temporarily blocking insulin, releasing glucose from the liver and muscle cells to the blood so that it can supply the brain. This temporary state of ‘insulin resistance’ ends as soon as the stress response is over.”
However, she adds, “Some studies have shown that people under chronic stress can be at increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome – the symptoms of which include weight gain and high blood pressure.”
Aim to lose excess weight through diet and exercise, to improve insulin sensitivity. Reduce your sugar intake and find healthy recipe swaps to replace high-fat or sugary foods.