Just listening to the news about the cost of living crisis has set our stress levels soaring. The daily doom of soaring inflation, interest rate hikes and skyrocketing fuel prices is enough to keep anyone awake at night. “The financial strain experienced across the UK will increase the risk of mental health problems,” warns Mark Rowland, chief executive of Mental Health Foundation. “Six in 10 adults feel the cost of living crisis has had a negative impact on their mental health.”
“The cumulative stresses over the past few years are having a wider impact now,” agrees psychotherapist Katy Georgiou and author of How to Understand and Deal with Stress. “People are making decisions over what to sacrifice or prioritise. There are a lot of physical symptoms accompanying this: sleep problems, migraines and stomach aches.”
Georgiou points out that stress is a natural response designed to protect us from danger. When a threat appears our entire system shifts into high alert, ready to take action. Stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, fly around the body, diverting all resources to the heart, lungs, muscles and brain. Our heart rate and blood pressure rise, muscles tense, and the mind becomes sharp and focused.
“Most people are aware of the fight-or-flight response,” says Georgiou. “But there are actually five ‘F’ reactions: fight, flight, freeze, flop and fawn.”
Freeze happens when you feel paralysed “like a rabbit in headlights”. Flop is feeling faint, dizzy, or zoning out. “It is a common reaction for people who have experienced trauma,” says Georgiou. Fawning occurs when you “move closer to the source of danger, because appeasing an attacker or making friends with them is your best chance of survival.” It’s saying yes when you really yearn to say no; appeasing an angry boss or partner.
“Your reaction depends on many factors,” she adds. “Including what you did when you were very young in response to being frightened. Research shows that whatever we did the first time to keep ourselves safe from danger gets hardwired into the brain.”
Unfortunately, rather than an isolated incident, stress today can be constant so our hormone levels remain on high alert, leaving us edgy and anxious. But can chronic stress put our physical health at risk? Georgiou warns “extreme stress is behind 180,000 deaths in the UK per year”. Constantly high levels of stress hormones may put people at risk of health issues, including heart disease, stroke, asthma, and Type 2 diabetes.
“How symptoms show up differs for everyone,” says Georgiou. ‘“It’s important to track what goes on in your body as these can be helpful markers. If we act on the early warning signs, then we can mitigate against bigger problems later.”
Here, are the seven symptoms that are concerning and what you should do to help lessen your stress load.
1. Heart racing (palpitations)
The stress response speeds up your heart rate and blood pressure, increasing blood flow and contractions. “Stress may disrupt the electrical supply of the heart, increasing the chances of abnormal heart rhythms [arrhythmia],” says Prof Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow.
While palpitations are not, in themselves, dangerous, studies show that high stress levels increase the risk of heart failure, stroke and heart attacks due to raised levels of stress hormones. Stress can also promote the build-up of plaque deposits in the arteries.
2. Digestive problems
“When you’re stressed, your liver pumps out glucose [to fuel the body as it responds to danger], your stomach produces more acid and stress can interfere with digestion, so you are more likely to experience things such as constipation, diarrhoea, heartburn, acid reflux and nausea,” says Georgiou. “Long term, this can place you at higher risk of ulcers or diabetes.”
3. Sleep issues
“When the level of pressure exceeds our ability to cope, we start to run on the sympathetic nervous system, which causes surges in the stress hormones,” says physiologist and sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, author of Fast Asleep, Wide Awake. At night-time, the parasympathetic system which governs rest and repair should be in charge. Having too much cortisol in the body at night-time also interferes with levels of the hormone melatonin which signals it’s time to sleep.
4. Increased colds and infections
Dr Eric Brunner, professor of social and biological epidemiology at University College London says a constant barrage of cortisol impairs the ability of our disease-fighting white blood cells to react to invaders, leaving us susceptible to bugs and viruses. Under chronic stress the body releases cytokines (messenger proteins) that cause inflammation which, in turn, can contribute to inflammatory conditions such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and heart disease.
5. Skin flare-ups
“Adrenaline and cortisol affect the flow of blood to your skin,” points out Dr Helen Harley, medical director at Bupa Insurance. Cortisol also increases the production of sebum – hence those pesky breakouts. It may also ramp up acne. “Extreme or sudden stress may also lead to vitiligo [pale patches of skin] if it runs in your family,” says Harley. “Stress can also cause a type of hives called ‘adrenergic urticaria’.” Stress may also lead to inflammatory conditions such as rosacea and, if you already have a skin condition like acne, stress will make it worse. It can also trigger flare-ups of the herpes simplex virus that causes cold sores.
6. Weight gain around your waist
The links between stress and weight gain are complicated and the mechanism is still not entirely understood, according to Prof Sattar. However, what does seem clear is that disruption to the stress response axis causes high levels of cortisol that makes us crave sugary and fatty foods (preparing us for fight or flight). Research also shows stress can slow the metabolism enough to cause an 11lb weight gain over a year. “Rising waist circumference usually signals that excess fat is starting to be stored into organs such as the liver or around blood vessels around the heart. There is more and more evidence that excess weight around the waist is linked to higher blood-fat levels, higher blood pressure and risks of diabetes,” says Prof Sattar.
7. Snapping or withdrawing
“Our upbringing tends to set the level of stress we can tolerate and our method of coping – whether to snap or give in,” says Dr Audrey Tang, psychologist and author of The Leader’s Guide to Resilience. “Any change of emotion from your baseline should give you pause for thought. Emotions are a warning light and becoming more snappy or withdrawn could be a sign you’re heading to exhaustion or burnout.”
Five ways to deal with stress
Mindfulness-based practices are recommended by the NHS to reduce anxiety, depression, stress and improve psychological wellbeing. Some GP surgeries offer groups. A variety of apps are also available: try Buddhify (buddhify.com), Calm (calm.com) and Headspace (headspace.com).
Pay attention to daily tasks, such as the water hitting your skin as you shower. Eat food mindfully, chewing slowly and tasting each mouthful – rather than bolting it on the go.
2. Regular exercise
“High intensity exercise [in workouts like running and CrossFit] produces spikes of cortisol,” says Juls Abernethy, co-founder of The Body Retreat stress-reset programme. But researchers found yoga and moderate walking, swimming or cycling lowered cortisol levels. “Aim for at least 30 minutes and no more than 90 minutes, every day if you can,” says Abernethy. “Do something you enjoy and do it early in the day when cortisol levels are already naturally high.”
3. Deep breathing
A 2019 study revealed slow, relaxed deep breathing (six breaths per minute) can generate brain rhythms similar to those seen in deep sleep. This state of sleep is when our bodies rest and repair, dropping into the parasympathetic nervous system. A slower exhale than inhale increases the benefit.
4. Use positive psychology
“Practical tools can manage the negative impact of stress,” says Dr Tang, who recommends the 54321 technique. “It stops negative thought spirals. As soon as you feel anxious, look around and name out loud: five things you can see; four things you can hear; three things you can touch; two things you can smell; one thing you can taste.”
5. Less sugar, more water
Balancing our blood sugar levels is “absolutely key” says Kate Delmar-Morgan, nutritional therapist at The Body Retreat. When blood sugar drops, our bodies pump out more cortisol to try to raise blood sugar. She advises regular balanced meals, high in unrefined carbs, fats and protein. “Decrease sugar and refined carbs,” says Delmar-Morgan. “Stay hydrated and have a protein snack around 4pm.” Try a handful of trail mix, a protein smoothie or a slice of apple spread with nut butter.