The impact of stress on our health

Stress is a word commonly used but often misunderstood, certainly often under estimated in its detrimental impact on both our physical and mental health.

2020 has certainly been a stressful year, even if you have been lucky and had a fairly good year with opportunities to reset, recharge, re-evaluate; you can’t ignore the global situation and the scale of impact that COVID-19 has had on the world, and sadly, will continue to have.

For many of us when news first began to break on the severity of the situation, we may have created a worst-case scenario outcome for ourselves and no doubt had an endless loop of questions and worries going around in our heads.

“What if a loved one or myself gets ill”

“What if I can’t afford to keep things going”

“What will happen to my business”

This is a natural response and is all down to the biology of our brain, and in particular, the biology of fear. In any situation our brain is pre-programmed to see the very worst outcome, this is a primal defence mechanism to help us to see a way out of a dangerous situation. This may be helpful when it is to devise a plan to escape from a wild animal but it is not helpful in a situation that is out of our control.

Whilst our mind is envisaging this frightening situation(s) it is very hard to switch into a positive mindset, it is also increasingly difficult to concentrate, focus and function through everyday life.  As the current situation is set to continue for months to come, this heightened state of anxiety will begin to take a significant toll on your physical and mental health.

Initially we can all cope with excessive stress fairly well, our bodies are designed that way to get us through situations. We produce hormones to keep us on ‘high alert’ (triggering the fight or flight response) and function with increased energy, decreased pain, heightened awareness and improved strength. But all of these reactions are designed to be temporary and in response to a situation we can change (such as running away or fighting a bear, highly unlikely I know, but our biology dates back to a time when that may have been more necessary!)

The problem with stress in the modern age and with particular reference to 2020 is thus:

  • With a continual flow of information (news, social media, etc) we have a constant worst-case scenario playing out in our minds – keeping us in a prolonged heightened state of anxiety
  • High levels of adrenaline without an immediate external threat can leave the body feeling shaky, irritable, restless.
  • Prolonged levels of adrenaline can lead to anxiety, emotional eating, high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat and stomach discomfort.
  • Our body is exposed to an excess of the stress hormone Cortisol, along with a continued exposure to adrenaline – together this can disrupt almost all of your bodies processes and leave you feeling overwhelmed.

There are many physiological symptoms of stress to look out for – here’s just a few:

Poor sleep, cognitive fuzz, poor memory, racing heart, stomach discomfort, muscle tension.

Believe me, the list goes on! You can live with the physiological symptoms of stress for a very long time, decades even but they will have a detrimental impact on your overall health. If you are feeling like this and each day masking your symptoms by ‘carrying on regardless’ please do take the time to step back and look out for yourself.

Right now, we should all be aware of our own mortality and the role we play in our own health. Right now, you need to be aware of how to support your own immune system. It’s what stands in the way of you and ill health, your immune system is your first line of defence and stress? Stress is a major suppressor of your immune system.

How you adapt to this situation now, how you think, move and eat during this time will have a significant impact on both your physical and mental health for years to come.

Louise Mercieca
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Louise Mercieca

Louise is an award-winning Nutritional Therapist, award-winning author and presenter on her own Food Channel for Early Years Nutrition. Whilst she is passionate about formative nutrition, she mainly works with adults on preventative nutrition. How can we use food instead of eventually needing medicine!? There are lots of confusing, contradictory and often, misplaced advice in the world of nutrition. Louise aims to make the message clear - food and health are intrinsically linked!