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Stress management health centre

Banish stress — before it makes you ill

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Most people thrive under a bit of pressure, or stress, but harmful stress is what happens when the pressure becomes more than you can handle, when it’s beyond your ability to deal with it in a normal, rational way.

Having too many demands on you and not knowing how to address those demands, and not seeing a light at the end of the tunnel can result in harmful stress.

When you become stressed your brain tells your body to release stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. Your heart begins to race and your breathing becomes fast and shallow.

Stress hormones prepare your body to fight or run. This was very useful for our survival when we lived on the African savannah 2 million years ago, but it’s less useful in the 21st century. A lot of adrenaline and cortisol continually coursing through your body often only adds to symptoms of stress. Focusing on your work or everyday tasks can become difficult.

"It's almost as if it becomes a vicious cycle," says Sam Challis, information manager at the mental health charity, Mind. "Stress makes it harder for you to tackle the things that are making you stressed, so you get more stressed."

Making you sick

Although stress isn’t an illness itself, if it persists for a long time, it can make you ill.

Studies have linked excessive levels of stress to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and hypertension. It can also cause weight gain (partly from "emotional eating" and partly from the effects of cortisol on how the body stores fat), digestive problems, headaches and insomnia. Some studies have even linked stress to an increased risk of cancer but the evidence for this is not very strong.

Chronic stress is also linked to a range of mental health problems, including anxiety and depression.

Reacting to stress

Everybody experiences stress differently. Some people thrive on pressure. They can cope with a range of different demands on them and it takes a lot for them to become stressed. Other people become stressed at relatively low levels of pressure.

People also react to stress differently. Some people become very active—rushing around, trying to get everything done. The problem with this response is that stress affects people’s cognitive abilities, in other words, the ability to think and make good decisions.

Some people become almost immobilised by stress. They don't know where to start on the big list of tasks they’ve got so they find it impossible to start any of them.

Of course, many people fall somewhere between those two extremes of highly active or completely inactive.

Coping with stress

When people become stressed, they develop coping strategies. Some of these coping strategies are healthy, others are extremely unhealthy.

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