Being under stress doesn’t just impact on your psychological health, it 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.