Stress is so inextricably bound to modern life that it’s become a buzzword for simply being busy. But there’s a difference between pressure and stress – and the latter can seriously damage your health.
‘Most people use the word “stress” when they mean “pressure”,’ says Carol Johnson from the International Stress Management Association. ‘Stress can be defined as the point at which pressure begins to damage us.’ The good news is your body has an in-built warning system. The bad news? You may not be picking up its messages. Decode your body’s stress signals with our top tips.
The sign: Your skin looks rubbish
As stress takes its toll on your emotions, it plays out on your skin, resulting in spots, a dull complexion and premature ageing. ‘Psychological stress elevates the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood, which contributes to collagen degradation,’ says dermatologist Dr Stefanie Williams from European Dermatology London. ‘Stress has also been shown to increase oxidative stress and micro-inflammation, which has a negative effect on collagen metabolism.’
So, a feud with your family or a fight with your boss could lead to early ageing, wrinkles, spots and blotches. ‘Repeated creasing of the skin through frowning also puts an unnecessary strain on skin and collagen metabolism,’ adds Dr Williams.
The solution: Get active!
Yes, a great serum will help, but to really combat the ravaging effect of stress on the skin, Dr Williams recommends boosting your blood flow and oxygen supply with exercise. A calming Hatha yoga session will help to nourish stressed out cells.
The sign: You’re always on edge
When you’re feeling frazzled, your temper is shorter and you can quickly become irritated. But it’s not you, it’s stress. ‘If you are under stress you are putting a lot of pressure on your body and mind, so you can easily suffer from heavy mood swings,’ explains wellbeing consultant Kam Birdee. ‘Normal tolerance levels go out the window, and a rush of negativity comes flooding in.’ According to Kam, a lack of sleep and a preoccupation with things you can’t control (a traffic jam, your partner’s bad mood) collide to create the perfect stress storm.
The solution: Breathe deeply
Kam recommends this simple breathing technique to take charge of your moods: ‘Breathe gently and deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth to allow oxygen to flow to your brain. This helps you de-stress, as the brain then sends oxygenated blood to the heart.’ It’s also a good idea to up your water intake and cut out sugary sodas, which are packed with mood-messing chemicals.
The sign: You’re putting on weight
Always turning to chocolate in a crisis? Even if you manage to cling on to your healthy habits when the pressure hits, it’s hard to escape weight gain when stress takes hold. ‘When you are under stress, your body produces cortisol, and increased amounts of this hormone tell the body to store fat – especially around the abdominal area,’ says clinical psychotherapist Terri Bodell. Add to this a reliance on comfort food and you’re got a recipe for extra baggage. ‘In times of stress, we tend to crave more sugary, fatty or salty foods, all of which lead to increased weight gain,’ adds Terri.
The solution: Eat smart
Keep a stash of healthy, nerve-soothing snacks to hand – think
a palmful of almonds or two oatcakes with avocado – to balance your blood sugar. To break the comfort-eating cycle, Terri recommends making time for leisurely exercise, even if it’s just for a 20-minute walk. ‘It’s the best thing for you,’ she says. ‘It helps you burn off stress hormones, returns your body to its natural chemical balance and keeps excess weight at bay.’
The sign: You’re not sleeping
Stress can have a huge impact on sleep patterns. A study by Silentnight found a quarter of people blame stress for a bad night’s kip. ‘There are many issues affecting women today that can lead to stress, which in turn has a detrimental impact on sleep,’ agrees Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a sleep therapist at Capio Nightingale Hospital, London. ‘Spending too much time on social media sites in the evening, working in bed on a laptop and checking messages during the night are also factors that can affect quality sleep.’
The solution: Wind down
Try to establish a sleep routine. ‘Get into the habit of winding down before bed by reading a book, listening to music or having a bath,’ Dr Ramlakhan suggests. ‘Delay going to bed if you feel tense and don’t let work talk spill into your evening. Allow your mind to switch off.’ If you do wake up in the night, avoid looking at the clock as it will only worry you. ‘Instead, lie on your back and relax each part of your body, while breathing deeply from your diaphragm.’
The sign: Constant pain
Tension headaches and back pain are common side effects of hunching over a desk all day. ‘If your stress levels are high, your posture can be affected,’ says consultant aromatherapist Joannah Metcalfe from Base Formula. ‘Any mental or emotional tension can lead to muscular tension, especially in the upper back, neck and shoulders. I call it emotional back-packing! This tension can also lead to headaches.’
The solution: Take a bath
Joannah recommends an aromatherapy massage or a relaxing bubble bath. ‘Stress-related disorders often respond effectively to aromatic baths,’ says Joannah, who recommends adding soothing lavender oil.
The sign: You catch every bug
Always struck down with a cold when the pressure’s on? It’s no coincidence. ‘The body’s immune system is dependent on a close relationship with the beneficial bacteria that inhabit the bowel. The gut forms the first line of defence against infection from “bad” bacteria,’ says Dr Mayur Joshi, who specialises in treating the colon and gut and is a medical advisor for Bio-Kult. ‘The relationship is complex and in times of stress the balance can be thrown off-kilter – this in turn impairs the immune system.’
The solution: Go pro
To counter the attack on your immune system, Dr Joshi recommends probiotics. ‘These contain a number of different bacteria that can help to redress this imbalance in the bacterial population of the bowel.’