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Stress : debilitating on overall health

It is one of the most common health issues affecting people across the world. Associated with a long list of physical and mental symptoms, stress is our bodies’ way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. Dr Ridwana Timol, Consultant in Psychology, Specialist in Sleep Neurophysiology & Neuropsychology at Wellkin Hospital, explains the causes, risk factors and impacts of stress on one’s health. 

Regardless of age and sex, stress is a problem and can be caused due to different situations or pressures one may experience. While a little stress is OK and can even help one to perform better, however, too much stress can wear someone down and make s/he sick, both mentally and physically. “When our brain perceives that we need to react better and faster to a situation, certain hormones (e.g. cortisol and adrenaline) in our body are released to make us more alert and responsive. A certain degree of stress is important for survival and success. It pushes individuals to pursue their goals, to improve their performance and in some cases, to protect themselves from a dangerous situation. Some theorists call this state “eustress” - it is a state of vigilance and alertness which pushes us to either be alert or to withdraw, depending on which reaction is judged best for us,” explains Dr Ridwana Timol, Consultant in Psychology, Specialist in Sleep Neurophysiology & Neuropsychology at Wellkin Hospital. 

However, underlines the doctor, “being exposed to a high level of stress that completely overwhelms us by paralysing all sensible judgment and action or by producing panic is not helpful. Most of the time when we refer to stress, we refer to this particular state of being where we feel in distress and not in control. It is a scary feeling accompanied by physiological changes in our body whereby our body temperature increases, our heart rates accelerate and become irregular and our blood pressure rises as a result.”


Chronic stress

Dr Ridwana Timol stated that we also feel fearful and uneasy, with a feeling of doom looming upon us. “An isolated such experience is referred to as acute stress and we all experience such episodes during our lifetime, when we are taken off guard by certain adverse life situations. Acute stress and its effects subside, as the situation gets resolved or as we adapt to it.”

She underlines that the most dangerous form of stress, with the worst health outcomes, is chronic stress. “Chronic stress refers to a situation whereby someone is exposed to a negative situation continuously or regularly. It is a state of mind where the person is constantly living under pressure and under the threat of a circumstance that they are unable to escape. Examples of such situations are being bullied at school or at work, being in a toxic and violent personal relationship, working under unreasonable conditions and dealing with a severe chronic health condition.

Physiologically, in such cases the body is flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, which in excess, affects attention, memory and concentration, mood, sleep and appetite. Psychologically, the person is in a state of hypervigilance, always on edge, anxious, irritable, depressed and negative about the present and the future,” she utters.


How does stress occur and how does it affect people? “Stress occurs when our resources are depleted either because we get physically tired and psychologically feel under threat by a situation that overwhelms us negatively. We feel stressed when we perceive that our burdens are heavier than what we can carry.” Dr Timol states that everyone can be affected by stress. “People who have poor coping mechanisms, little emotional support and those suffering from anxiety are the most affected by stress. However, anyone can get stressed but those of us, who have not been taught to deal with adversity and who experience a lot of fear, experience stress more easily.”

How is stress diagnosed? “Stress is a subjective experience that is felt and perceived. Some physiological markers of stress include a person’s cortisol level (also called the stress hormone), increased heart rate and blood pressure, body temperature and perspiration. However, most of the time, diagnosing stress is done through a clinical assessment by a professional of someone’s level of anxiety, behaviour and reported emotions. Becoming restless, breathless, sleeping poorly, overthinking, panicking are some behavioural signs of stress,” she explains. 

Risk factors and impacts

Dr Timol states that there are many risk factors of stress which can be situational, physical or mental. “Toxic relationships at home or at work, poor work-life balance, lack of sleep and erratic routines, dealing with major life changes with little psychosocial support and financial problems.” She explains that stress also has various negative impacts on the different persons, namely children, adolescents and seniors. 

“Children can develop anxiety and experience physical and psychological symptoms of various kinds such as tummy ache and bed wetting. Children who are very stressed can start acting out or become excessively fearful of otherwise harmless situations. Stress can, on the other hand, impact on teenagers’ self-esteem and make them doubt their abilities. The elderly, on their side, can develop insomnia, be at risk of developing depression, Alzheimer’s disease in the case of chronic exposure to stress during a lifetime. Stress impairs judgment and performance in all age categories,” she states. 
Dr Timol underlines that stress can worsen or increase the risk of several health conditions. “Stress can cause other health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, skin problems such as psoriasis and eczema. Moreover, it may also worsen existing health conditions, one can get back pain and frequent infections as well.”


What are the cures/treatments for stress? “Changing one’s mindset about situations and people through therapy, surrounding oneself with positive people and removing oneself from toxic situations, relaxation exercises and meditation, and exercise in general. Exercise is an excellent buffer to stress, it reverses the physiological changes caused by stress (e.g. reducing cortisol and releasing happy hormones such as endorphins). Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by getting adequate sleep and eating healthy also helps,” explains the Consultant in Psychology. 


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