Stress comes in many forms. It can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). It can be triggered by an everyday event (eg. a big presentation at work), a traumatic life event (eg. death in the family), or even by nothing obvious at all. And it won’t always be a conscious thing – in fact, you might be stressed and not even realise it.
Some people dismiss the experience of stress and pretend everything is OK. But if it starts to get overwhelming and you see signs of a serious health problem, you should always seek medical advice.
Here are 5 common health problems related to stress.
When you’re in a seriously stressful situation, your heart rate speeds up, you breathe faster, your muscles tense and your hands get sweaty. This is your body’s natural response to stress – fight or flight – and it’s caused by the release of hormones, which includes cortisol and adrenaline, in your body.
But what about chronic stress? What effect does that have on your heart?
While a connection has yet to be scientifically proven, initial studies suggest that chronic stress and an unhealthy level of stress hormones may contribute to inflammation of the heart muscle, a factor in heart disease, as well as changes in the way your blood clots, which can increase your risk of heart attack.
That’s not all. Stress can make your blood pressure spike, as well as make you feel more like overeating, smoking or skipping out on exercise – all of which are risk factors for heart disease.
Reviewed by Dr Leslie Tay, cardiologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a common chronic disorder that affects the large intestine, causing cramping, pain, bloating, and diarrhoea or constipation. Flare-ups can be caused by several different factors, and many people with the condition find that stress is one of them.
In fact, almost 60% of people with IBS meet the criteria for a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety or depression. IBS sufferers frequently experience mood disorders such as anxiety or depression. Some of the mood disorders may also arise because of poorly controlled IBS symptoms.
So, what’s the link? Well, stress has been linked to increased movement and sensitivity in the intestines. As the pain pathways in our central nervous systems are linked to our gut processes, external stressors can trigger unpleasant bowel symptoms. There is also evidence to show that stress and mood disorders can alter our gut microbiome and affect our immune system, both of which are important for proper gut function.
If you have IBS, finding ways to relieve stress may help you to manage your condition and improve your quality of life. Getting a good sleep and having a work-life balance is a good start to managing IBS symptoms.
Reviewed by Dr Kelvin Thia, gastroenterologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital
Do you have a dull pain in your head or neck, like a clamp around your skull? This is a classic sign of a tension headache. An occasional tension headache is usually set off by a single stressful event, but if you suffer from chronic stress, you may also get chronic tension headaches. This cycle of pain itself is a big stress factor, and can make the stresses of daily living feel even worse.
Reviewed by Dr Lee Kim En, neurologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital
High blood sugar
When you feel stressed, your body wants to make sure you have enough energy to deal with the cause of stress. So, it releases more glucagon and adrenaline, as well as glucose, from your liver. Insulin levels fall, and growth hormones and cortisol levels rise, which makes your body less sensitive to the insulin you do have.
This means more glucose is available in your blood stream, and you have higher blood sugar levels. Consistently high blood sugar levels can wreak havoc on your health, with symptoms including increased thirst and urination, blurred vision, light-headedness, flushed skin and restlessness.
Some studies go so far as to suggest extreme stress can increase your risk of developing diabetes. One found that men with prolonged stress have a 45% higher risk of developing the condition.
Reviewed by Dr Abel Soh, endocrinologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital
Doctors are yet to prove the connection between stress and Alzheimer’s disease, but stress is thought to cause inflammation of the brain, making it more susceptible to health issues in general. Stress is also associated with depression, which is known to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
In addition, one study found that stressful life experiences (eg. being fired, declaring bankruptcy, death of a parent or financial loss) can each age the brain by around 1.5 years, with age obviously being a contributing factor in the onset of the condition.
Reviewed by Dr Lee Kim En, neurologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital
What can you do to help minimise stress?
- Do something fun: Take a day to yourself to do an activity you enjoy, whether it’s reading, going for a walk or getting a massage.
- Meditate: Sit or lie down, relax, breathe naturally and focus on what you are doing and how your body moves as you breathe.
- Write: Put down on paper what’s bothering you and how it makes you feel.
- Exercise: Exercising lowers stress hormones. Try to find something you enjoy, whether that’s dancing, running, swimming, yoga or something else.
- Talk: Try to put your thoughts into words. If you’re uncomfortable finding someone you trust to do this with, speak to your doctor about a referral to a therapist.
Whatever you do, don’t let stress consume your life. Reach out to a doctor if you need more advice or tips on how to minimise its impact on your happiness.
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