Cases of stress are rapidly rising nationwide, with modern life only exacerbating the situation. And women stand to come off worse. A major study found that women are twice as likely to suffer from severe stress and anxiety as men – a phenomenon put down to juggling work, children and family, where the burden of care often falls to women.
Small bursts of stress every now and then can be beneficial, making us better able to manage stress later on, and causing us to be proactive in response to the stressful situation. However, prolonged, negative experiences of stress can cause a number of health issues and physical limitations later in life. We asked Anna Whittaker, health psychologist and professor of behavioural medicine at the University of Birmingham, to help us identify the physical symptoms and offer her advice on how to prevent them.
Hitting the headlines last year was the news that stress can age the brain by four years. ‘The poor effects on memory and thinking are thought to be due to the increased inflammation stress causes, which in turn could increase the chances of developing dementia,’ says Whittaker. ‘Chronic stress has also been associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease – a prolonged activation of the normal stress response was found to physically damage the brain.’
The prevention: While you can’t stop stressful things from happening to you, you can take steps to reduce the effects of that stress. ‘Anti-depressants and physical activity have both been found to improve the hippocampus,’ says Whittaker. ‘This is significant because the hippocampus typically shrinks when exposed to chronic stress, and in cases of Alzheimer’s.’ So even if it’s the last thing you want to do, try to stay active through stressful life events. If you’re still struggling to cope, see your GP, who might refer you for therapy, or prescribe medication.
Giving up the fight
As well as taking a toll on your mental health, stress can make you more susceptible to contracting illnesses, too. ‘It could be anything from a cold to something more sinister,’ says Whittaker. ‘You need to be exposed to one in the first place, but your chances of fighting it off are poorer, as stress lowers your immune system defences.’
The prevention: The best counterattack is to stay as well as possible, says Whittaker. ‘A healthy diet, being physically active and getting enough sleep will help regulate your hormone levels and immune system.’ And as well as taking all the obvious steps when it comes to leading a healthy lifestyle, it’s equally important to express how you’re feeling to loved ones and make regular social plans. ‘We’ve also found social support directly relates to immune function: a good level can act as a buffer against stress,’ says Whittaker.
If you experience prolonged stress, you might actually begin to shut off from it, but Whittaker warns that’s a negative thing. ‘If you fail to show a strong physiological response to stress, it’s a malfunction,’ she says. ‘You want your body to be able to deal with challenges and then recover back to baseline. It’s necessary because stress forces you to deal with the situation and mobilises immune cells – if you’ve got any damage, like a wound, they can go and deal with it.’ People who don’t respond to stress are at an elevated risk of depression, obesity, poor health and various addictions as they get older.
The prevention: Again, you can’t prevent what stress has already happened to you, but a useful strategy is to give yourself time to recover afterwards. ‘A problem we see in chronically stressed populations is that they experience one stress after another, and they never get a break,’ says Whittaker. ‘This means the system never really recovers, so it resets at a higher level. But if you can get away from the stressful situation, then you’re giving yourself the psychological and physical opportunity to recover back to where you were before.’
Reaching boiling point
When you’re exposed to an acute stressful situation, you’re at an increased risk of having a heart attack or stroke. ‘Your blood clots more quickly and water flows out of the vessels into the surrounding tissues, making blood more sticky and concentrated,’ says Whittaker. ‘This is thanks to stress hormones changing the epithelium, or lining, of your blood vessels. They also get narrower because of the constriction stress causes, and plaques already in your blood can rupture as immune messages are released. All these things combine to increase the risk of a clot getting stuck somewhere and blocking a blood vessel.’
The prevention: Although this effect is triggered by a short-term stressful event happening at the time, reducing levels of background stress can make you less susceptible. ‘A healthy lifestyle, and avoiding short-term stress triggers where possible, is the best defence,’ says Whittaker.