Audio Version (10:52)
For many of us, our jobs are a significant part of our lives, providing not only financial stability but also a sense of purpose and structure.
However, it’s essential to recognise when your job might be taking a toll on both your physical and mental health.
In our fast-paced and demanding lives, stress is almost inevitable. While stress can serve as a motivator in the short term, chronic stress can silently erode our physical and mental health.
To watch the extended version of this article, click here.
It’s essential to recognise the signs of chronic stress, as they often manifest physically, offering a crucial opportunity to address the underlying issues.
When we’re stressed, our brain thinks we’re under attack. The exact defence mechanism that has always helped keep humans safe from physical attack, our fight, flight, freeze stress response, is the same one that is triggered in response to panicking, overthinking and feeling overwhelmed.
Unfortunately, our brains can’t distinguish between a real-life physical threat and a perceived one. So the adaptive helpful flight, fight, freeze stress response that keeps us safe from physical attacks has become maladaptive in response to perceived threats like getting an email from your boss, panicking about paying your bills or worrying about the future.
When we panic, worry or feel overwhelmed, our brain senses a threat and triggers cortisol and adrenaline in the same way as it would if someone were running towards us with a weapon. It can’t tell the difference. A threat is a threat!
Cortisol and adrenaline get released to give us a 15-minute burst of strength and energy to escape a physical threat. But we don’t move. We don’t use those chemicals, so they build up in our bodies.
Over time, left unaddressed, they can cause severe mental health problems, heart disease, diabetes, and the list goes on. It’s important to note that excessive amounts of cortisol resulting from chronic stress cause inflammation and constrict blood vessels.
So, let’s look at the symptoms that could indicate that work-related stress might be making you sick.
1. Chronic Fatigue
One of the most common physical signs of chronic stress is unrelenting fatigue.
Fatigue is not just feeling tired; it’s an enduring sense of exhaustion that often persists despite adequate rest.
Chronic stress can leave you physically drained and emotionally depleted, making even simple tasks feel like insurmountable challenges.
Our bodies are simply not made to be under constant ‘threat’, which is what stress is. As I’ve mentioned, stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are only meant to give us a quick burst of strength and energy to get away from physical threats.
When we constantly release those hormones, they build up and interfere with the body’s natural rhythms, disrupting sleep and leading to persistent fatigue.
And if you think about it, if your brain believes you’re under attack (in other words, a sabre-toothed tiger is prowling around), you’re not going to have a restful sleep because it thinks you’re going to have to jump up at any point to defend yourself!
2. Inability to Concentrate
Chronic stress can fog your mind and impair your ability to concentrate and make decisions.
When we’re stressed, the amygdala, responsible for our fight, flight, freeze stress response, takes over, and the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for critical thinking and executive functions, literally goes offline.
That’s because, if you’re in mortal danger, your brain doesn’t want you to think, ‘Hmmm, what should I do here? Should I run away, hit the thing, or hide?’ No, in those precious seconds it takes for you to decide what to do, you could be dead!
So, the pre-frontal cortex is irrelevant in what the brain considers ‘life or death’ situations. It goes offline, which is why it’s challenging to think straight, leading to forgetfulness, difficulty with tasks that once felt easy and a persistent feeling of being mentally overwhelmed.
3. Digestive Issues
Chronic stress can profoundly affect the digestive system, leading to conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). IBS is characterised by symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhoea, and constipation.
When we’re constantly in a stressed state, the brain diverts energy away from functions such as digestion and reproduction, which is a significant reason why sexual function and the ability to get pregnant can be an issue when you’re stressed. The brain won’t want to bring a baby into a situation where it perceives that you’re under attack – it makes no sense.
So, precious energy gets diverted from what we call ‘rest and digest’ functions and gives all the attention to immediate survival.
4. Inability to Regulate Emotions
Regulating our emotions becomes incredibly challenging when we’re under stress.
Adrenaline and cortisol activate a heightened emotional reactivity, making it difficult to control our responses to triggering situations. That’s also because the amygdala, responsible for our emotions, is in charge, not our critical thinking pre-frontal cortex.
Additionally, stress often narrows our focus, causing us to hyper-fixate on the perceived threat or stressor, leaving less mental bandwidth to manage our emotions effectively.
This tunnel vision can make considering alternative perspectives and solutions challenging, further hindering our ability to regulate emotions.
In numerous experiments into the effects of stress, even neutral faces appear to be threatening when we’re in a heightened stress state. So, perfectly reasonable requests from our boss may feel completely unreasonable and like they’re unfairly targeting us when we’re in a chronic stress situation.
5. Psychosomatic Pain
Psychosomatic pain is physical pain that is primarily caused or exacerbated by psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, and emotional distress.
Stress can lead to various physical symptoms, such as muscle pain, headaches, and even chest pain.
The stress hormone cortisol causes both inflammation and narrowing arteries. Therefore, headaches and otherwise unexplainable aches and pains are typical when we’re stressed.
Lower back/hip pain is a particular issue for many chronically stressed people. The psoas muscle is known as the fight-flight muscle as it runs from the lower back down into our hip flexors. This muscle is responsible for running and kicking and gets activated when we trigger our stress response.
But we don’t use it. We sit at our desks or lie on the couch, and consequently, the psoas become tighter and tighter, eventually contracting so much that we can get significant lower back or hip pain.
Managing Stress – The Basics
Any scientist or medical professional will tell you that if you don’t get the basics right, nothing will go right, and it’s not rocket science!
- Prioritise Sleep: Create a restful sleep environment and maintain a consistent sleep schedule to improve sleep quality and alleviate fatigue.
- Eat well: Have at least one meal that contains only ‘real’ food, in other words, things that very recently were alive, e.g. plants and animal products that HAVE NOT come from a factory. Avoid processed food. It will only make your symptoms worse.
- Drink Water: Drinking at least 2 litres of water, plain or carbonated, without colour or flavour, is essential, in addition to other drinks. Sip it throughout the day rather than all in one go.
- Exercise: We’re animals. Many of the issues we have today are because we don’t move our bodies the way they were intended to be used. We have to move. It’s critical to our well-being – even if it’s just a 15-minute walk.
- Get Daylight: Daylight in the back of our eyes, especially within an hour of waking up, regulates our sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm) through the activation of our serotonin. If you aren’t getting at least 10 minutes of daylight (not through a window), you will have sleep problems.
In the extended video version of this article (click here to watch), I go into more detail about managing stress.
Chronic stress is a pervasive issue that can profoundly affect both physical and mental well-being.
By recognising these physical signs, you can take proactive measures to manage stress levels and seek support when necessary.
Prioritising self-care, practising stress management techniques, and seeking professional help are essential steps in mitigating the physical toll of chronic stress.
Understanding these signs is the first step towards creating a healthier, more balanced life that can help you build resilience and maintain your well-being in the face of life’s challenges.
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