Stress is running riot through our lives. And while many of us are aware of the impact it can have on our mental health – an inability to think clearly, anxiety, feeling irritable or impatient, anger and racing thoughts – we tend to think less about the physical symptoms.
To get an idea of just how common stress has become, Nicola Perry, a counsellor in North Somerset, estimates that 90% of her clients are stressed in some way. “We live in quite an anxious society and we’ve got fragmented attention between work, social media, the demands of our phone,” she says. “We haven’t got the same focus to be able to deal with problems that maybe we would have in the past.”
Stress manifests itself in different ways. “Stress is a killer,” says therapist Beverley Hills. “I look upon it like a jellyfish that has loads of tendrils. Stress has loads of tendrils and it bleeds into so many different areas of our lives.”
The mental symptoms are often the ones we pick up, eventually. But when it comes to physical aspects, Hills says: “I don’t think people are aware [that stress] can cause physical symptoms at all. I always ask people how they are feeling physically, what’s hurting them in their body.”
You might, for instance, find yourself struggling with stomach upsets or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), heart problems (such as palpitations) and issues with blood pressure. “Insomnia is quite a common one,” says Hills. “Not being able to fall asleep, or waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep. Your mind is so alive and ticking over with worry.”
If you find you’re underperforming at sex – for example, men not being able to get an erection and women not being able to focus to achieve orgasm – that might also be linked to stress. You could also lose interest in sex altogether.
Some other physical symptoms of stress:
:: Panic attacks
:: Puffiness on the face
:: Dark circles under eyes
:: Hair falling out
:: Brittle nails
:: Muscle tension particularly the shoulders and back
:: Blurred eyesight or sore eyes
:: Constant tiredness
:: Teeth grinding
:: Chest pains
:: Indigestion or heartburn
:: Constipation or diarrhoea
:: Feeling sick, dizzy or fainting.
Our busy, fragmented lives make it more difficult to deal with stress, Perry suggests, noting that as a society, we are not as physical as we once were. Exercise helps reduce the level of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, and with less of it, we can “feel a lot more anxious and stressed”.
For many younger people, the impact of peer pressure and a culture of comparison on social media can also cause stress. “Insta culture is terrible for stress,” says Hills. “I get a lot of people opening up about that kind of peer pressure and they’re of a certain age group – people under 25, who have lived their lives on Instagram and Snapchat.
“Even though they’re intelligent people they’re still buying into this ‘I’m not perfect’ scene, which is really sad and very hard to break. Because now you’re talking about addiction, people are addicted to their phones, addicted to their screens, which leads to more stress.”
What To Do If You’re Stressed
If you are experiencing symptoms – whether they’re mental or physical – you should try to take a step back and evaluate what might be causing your stress. If you’re unsure, try keeping a stress diary. “You should include what happens just before or after you feel stressed,” advises Rethink Mental Illness.
Neil Shah, chief de-stressing officer at non-profit organisation The Stress Management Society, says solutions to stress are personal. “Your reaction should be tailored to the individual symptom,” he says. If, for example, you find it hard to sleep, focus on developing a well-planned wind-down routine, and avoid stimulating foods and drinks containing caffeine, sugar and chocolate after 4pm.
Studies have found mindfulness can help reduce stress and improve mood, and calming breathing exercises might help if you’re feeling particularly anxious. Shah advises sitting or standing in a relaxed position; slowly inhaling through your nose, counting to five; and breathing out from your mouth, counting to eight. Repeat this several times.
Exercise can help boost your mood if you’re feeling low and enable you to think more clearly. There’s also evidence to suggest volunteering or helping others can boost a person’s resilience.
Chatting to friends, family members or even colleagues about your stresses may be useful, as they can offer support or, if volume of work is a problem, ways to ease the burden of workload.
“If something is not quite right with your life or body, you need to talk to someone about it – speak to your GP or find a counsellor,” urges Hills. She also recommends The SAM (stress anxiety management) app, which has been developed in collaboration with a research team from the University of the West of England (UWE) Bristol. The app helps people to understand what’s causing them stress and offers self-help exercises.