Conceição Espada - SHA Wellness ClinicWellness Expert
Conceiçao Espada, expert in Stress Management at SHA Wellness Clinic, shares her knowledge on what stress is, who it affects and how and why we should treat it.
1. What is stress? What happens in our body when we are stressed?
Stress is our body’s natural reaction to potentially harming situations. We all are affected by stress and need it as a defence mechanism. We can compare stress to cholesterol, there’s the ‘good’ kind and ‘bad’ kind. ‘Good’ stress is what allows us to react almost instantly to harmful situations.
Our brain releases cortisol, the stress hormone, in order for our body to respond to any situation swiftly. This type of stress is our body’s defence mechanism to protect us from any external threats. However, what tends to happen is that the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress is blurred.
When a person is in a permanent state of stress, they end up suffering from chronic stress. As a result, chronic stress affects us physically, emotionally and psychologically, causing symptoms such as poor sleep, anxiety, nervousness, lack or surplus of appetite, headaches, backaches and pressure in the shoulders.
Stress can also affect our diet, increasing our appetite and desire for unhealthy foods such as sweets, fats and processed foods. It can also disrupt eating patterns. However, there are those who suffer from a lack of appetite. Their stomach closes up and they’re unable to eat, causing severe weight-loss. That’s why we need to consider the connection between the digestive system and the brain.
2. Who is most likely to be affected by stress? What are the main causes? What are the most common symptoms? How can we identify them?
Everyone suffers from stress at one point or another. Each person reacts to stress differently; therefore the symptoms differ from one person to another. However, the most common symptoms are:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Mood swings
- Difficulty relaxing
- Lack of energy
- Heart palpitations
- Constant worrying
- Lack of concentration and memory
- Pessimistic attitude
- Change of appetite-either an increase or a decrease
- Increased desire of alcohol, tobacco or drugs
One of the main causes of stress nowadays is the lifestyle we lead. We don’t dedicate enough time to ourselves, we overwork our body, don’t sleep enough, our diet is unhealthy and we are in constant motion.
On the other hand, another important factor affecting our society, are new technologies. We are constantly surrounded by gadgets that interfere with our health. The bright light reflected by mobile devices for example, causes our body to produce the hormone that makes us feel hungry, ghrelin, and inhibits the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. Therefore, an overuse of technological devices has a negative impact on our sleep and as we know, a lack of sleep causes stress in our body. It’s a current issue of our society and one that we should aim to improve if we want to have good health.
Tip: stop using any technological devices at least 1 hour before going to sleep.
3. How does stress affect, especially our organs? What aspects of our health are affected by stress?
Stress affects all our organs. There are several pathologies that are linked to stress and by simply resolving the root problem, the pathology can be reversible. Digestive problems, heart pathologies, headaches, emotional stress, lack of sleep can all be caused by chronic stress, to name a few. Stress also causes us to be more irritable, anxious and impatient, creating situations of addiction like smoking and drinking. Therefore, it’s important to target the root cause of stress to avoid many ailments.
4. Does stress speed up the aging process?
Without a doubt, stress speeds up the aging process in our organism. When the body is under high levels of stress, our sleep is affected negatively. It’s more than evident that sleep is essential for our health and preventing premature aging. When you don’t sleep enough, both the brain and cells wear down, causing premature aging. Therefore, it’s important to manage stress to avoid it from affecting your sleep.
5. Why is it important to manage stress?
In my opinion, learning how to manage stress is fundamental for our health and wellbeing. Stress is like an umbrella. Each rib is connected to all aspects of our life, from our health, job, personal relationships, diet to how we face difficult situations, whether it’s in a positive or negative way. If one of the umbrella’s ribs is broken, it stops working. The same thing happens when an aspect of our life isn’t going well, all the rest are affected too.
Our attitude towards situations will also influence how we manage stress. If we have a positive approach to life, we will live more consciously and react to situations more calmly. However, if we allow ourselves to be governed by stress, our actions will be affected negatively by them. The key is to balance our physical, mental and emotional health.
6. What are key ways of managing stress?
The first step is to recognise and accept that you’re stressed. There are many people who suffer from stress and aren’t able to admit it. Others are under a lot of stress and believe that it’s what makes them function properly. However, stress and motivation is not the same thing. We can be motivated without feeling stressed. These are two concepts that we must be able to distinguish. Therefore, for those who suffer from stress, the most important aspect is to recognise the symptoms signalling signs of stress, like trouble sleeping, change in appetite, anxiety, irritability, chronic headaches, back pains, amongst the others we’ve already mentioned.
Once you’ve recognised that you suffer from stress, it’s important to identify what the root cause is in order to target the problem. The principal cause is different from person to person. It can either be triggered by your work life, personal situations or as a reaction to stressful situations, like an important deadline or giving a presentation. Certain situations are inevitable, however, by changing our attitude towards them, we can learn to manage stress far better.
When the origin of stress has been identified, the second step is to implement exercises that can help us manage our stress better, to avoid it from becoming chronic.
Some of the best techniques to manage stress are:
- Breathing exercises
- Tai chi
- Spending time outdoors
- Sleeping a minimum of 7 hours per night
- Eating a balanced diet