Is it stress that’s making you ill?

Stress is a huge public health problem in the UK costing the nation around £27 billion a year in sickness absence and labour turnover alone. 6 Million people are are estimated to be suffering from stress, anxiety or depression in the UK.

Yet this doesn’t just impact on your psychological health, being under too much stress is also a risk factor for developing common physical problems too. For example, it can make your heart health suffer, leading to gut disorders and triggering back pain.

‘If you’re told you have a medical problem that is stress-related you may feel your problems are being dismissed as “all in your head”, says Professor Cary Cooper, professor of organizational psychology and health at Lancaster University, and editor of the medical journal Stress in Health.

‘But these days increasingly, there is recognition that while stress might not be the cause of an illness it can be a risk factor for a whole host of very real physical illnesses.’

What is stress?

Stress is a feeling of being under too much pressure. It isn’t an illness itself, but it can cause serious illness if it isn't addressed. Symptoms of stress include changes in appetite, sleep problems, anxiety, irritability, an inability to concentrate and a tendency to withdraw from socialising.

Good stress and bad stress

Some stress is good: the body produces hormones such as adrenaline  for “fight or flight” situations – so in the short term it can enhance your performance to help get you out  of a scrape, meet a deadline, escape a predator or pass an exam etc. For example the hormone cortisol is produced in response to stress – in the short term it can make glucose available  for the brain and generate new energy from stored reserves – but in the  longer term  too much cortisol  may suppress the immune system.

‘It’s not short term or acute stress such as a job interview or exams which cause serious problems, but when the stress is chronic, persistent and deeper-rooted,’ explains Professor Cooper.
‘Getting one bill won’t make you ill , but if you have long term financial difficulties , or are persistently bullied at work or have a bad marriage – these types of chronic stress can affect your health.

‘Stress definitely has biological effects on the body. We know for instance that stress can suppress “killer” T cells in the immune system making individuals more susceptible to infection and disease.’

Are we getting more stressed?

Professor Cooper says yes, and it’s down to a number of factors including job insecurity, long working hours and excessive workloads in the workplace, lack of extended family and community support structures, divorce and the demands on two partner earners in a family ‘

What illnesses are stress-related?

• Gut disorders: The gut has its own nervous system- the enteric nervous system, also known as the "second brain". Stress has been shown to have a direct effect on how it works. This is why experts believe that some cases of Irritable Bowel Syndrome may be stress-related. It doesn’t mean your symptoms are any less real though – it’s just that the trigger might be stress.

• Back pain: Dr Martin Johnson, pain champion for the Royal College of General Practitioners, believes stress can be a major contributory factor in pain conditions such as back pain. He says: ‘If you look at the area of the brain responsible for stress, anxiety and depression, it is very close to the area responsible for pain. One feeds off the other. For instance, when you’re stressed, your body naturally produces more adrenaline, and this causes physical symptoms such as palpitations and dry mouth. We also know that if you tackle sources of stress, perceptions of pain will improve.’

•  Heart Disease: New research published this year in the European Heart Journal found that just worrying about stress increase the chances of having a heart attack by 50 per cent. Although no direct cause and effect relationship between stress and heart disease has been established, experts acknowledge that how you handle stress can determine your risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke. Thembi Nkala, a senior cardiac nurse with the British Heart Foundation says:’ For example stressed people may comfort eat, smoke, drink too much alcohol and lack motivation to exercise, and these can increase the risk of developing heart disease. More research is needed on the direct role of stress and heart disease.’

• Alzheimer’s: One new study published this year in the British  Medical Journal, based on 800 Swedish women found those who experienced major life stresses such as divorce, bereavement , unemployment, serious illness, death of a spouse or child or alcoholism  aged  35 to 54 , had a 21 per cent increase chance of developing Alzheimer’s later in life.

Why stress isn’t always to blame

Sometimes stress can be unfairly blamed for your medical problems when there are other factors that may be triggering it though. For instance stress is sometime blamed for causing migraines – but in fact stress accounts for only 10 per cent of migraines and there are many other physical triggers including dehydration, skipping meals, sleep deprivation, specific foods and hormonal changes.

Stress busting tips

• Avoid the source of your stress: This isn’t always possible but if there is something that is stressing you out that you can change like hating your job or being unhappy in your marriage take steps to change it and avoid it.

• Learn how to say no: So many of us are overloaded  by demands from work , friends and family , plus domestic responsibilities – sometimes you have to accept that something is too much and turn it down.

• Practice time management techniques: It’s great to be busy – but be realistic about what you can fit into one day and leave enough time between your activities.

• Try exercise: Being active has been shown to boost mood, lower blood pressure and bring down cholesterol – try and fit some in every day even if it’s only a brisk walk.

• Chill out: The Mental Health Foundation recommends mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques incorporating gentle yoga, meditation and mind / body exercises to help people cope with stress. They have been shown to reduce anxiety, improve sleep and reduce physical symptoms of stress.

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Page last reviewed on 15/01/2016