Prior to the pandemic, 75 percent of people reported they regularly felt a significant physical and psychological impact of stress on their lives. Now that we are all dealing with increased pressure from all directions - work, health, finances, family - it would be fair to assume we are all dealing with it.
We are told stress is a normal part of life, but when does it become a problem? Generally speaking, there are two kinds of stress: chronic (or ongoing) stress and acute (sudden) stress. Acute stress is not bad for us; it is the fight or flight response we have been having to situations since the beginning of time. It is not acute stress that causes issues for people, but the long-term activation of the stress response system and overexposure to stress hormones that can cause many problems.
If you encounter a perceived threat, like a dog barking during your morning walk, this causes the brain to stimulate the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys, to release a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars in the bloodstream.
This enhances the brain's use of sugars. Cortisol also curbs non-essential functions. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes.
This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear. The stress response system then turns off after the event when the dog runs away and the threat is over. The problem is when people begin to experience chronic stress, where the fight or flight system never turns off. It disrupts almost all your body processes, and can cause significant physical and psychological impairment.
Some of the symptoms of chronic stress may include: fatigue, headache, upset stomach, muscle tension, poor appetite, irritability, anger, low mood, and difficulty managing responsibilities. Now that you know you are already under pressure and your stress is likely to increase, it is good to identify the things that make you stressed and take steps to protect your body's system from reaching breaking point. Preparation is key.
How can I manage stress?
The experts have been telling us how important it is to get regular physical activity during this period of lockdown. Continue the exercise habit you have made for yourself, albeit altered for your different working setup, and complement this with a healthy and nutritious diet.
Sleep should be a priority, ensuring good sleep hygiene and adequate sleep.
Meditation and mindfulness can help you strengthen your brain. Watch a comedy show, catch up with your friends and see how those in your community are going. Giving has incredible mental health benefits.
Keep sight of your big goals and priorities in life and work. Take time to reflect and plan, simplifying your life where you can and ensuring you carry out your life in service to your values.
Keep a "to-do" list and prioritise important tasks first.
This goes for work and family tasks, and breaking things down into smaller chunks can make the tasks seem less imposing.
Finally, seek professional help when needed - seeing your doctor or psychologist is not a sign of weakness but is like checking in with your personal trainer to keep your health on track.
- Today's answer is provided by Sydney general practitioner Dr Jill Gamberg, through HealthShare, a digital company dedicated to improving the health of regional Australians. Submit questions, and find more answers, at healthshare.com.au.