The UK’s recent National Stress Awareness Day served as a valuable reminder of the influence that stress and anxiety can exert on individuals. This occasion not only emphasised the pervasive nature of stress but also illuminated strategies to effectively manage anxiety.

In this discussion, we will take a look at the ways in which stress affects the human body, while also exploring key insights and guidance on recognising the tell-tale signs of stress.

Stress and Burnout

Stress is a normal hormonal response that enables us to take action. Adrenaline increases our heart rate, providing us with more energy, while cortisol, the other major stress hormone, works in conjunction with it to give us a surge of energy. Our senses become sharper, and our minds can achieve clarity when problem-solving, allowing us to focus more sharply on the issue at hand. However, this response is designed for short bursts and has limited utility. Excessive adrenaline can lead to a racing heart and breathing difficulties, and an excess of cortisol can result in fatigue and mental fog. Therefore, we need to balance this action with its opposite, inaction, or relaxation.

Polyvagal Theory at Work

The Polyvagal theory suggests two autonomic nervous system states: the sympathetic or active state and the parasympathetic or relaxed state. You can experience this process firsthand while reading this. The vagus nerve, responsible for managing these responses, runs down the back of the throat, spine, and is particularly active when we breathe in through the nose at the back of the throat. So, try breathing in and out exclusively through your nose. Take a deep breath in and notice a slight increase in your heart rate and alertness. Then, exhale through your nose, slightly extending the breath, and you’ll notice a significant decrease in your heart rate and your muscles relaxing. The breath activates the vagus nerve response during inhalation and promotes relaxation during exhalation. This simple technique forms the foundation of practices like mindful meditation, allowing us to observe our reactions and better manage them.

Modern life tends to push us toward the activation stage of our nervous system, making it easy to become overwhelmed. Adding to this are the stressors we have collectively experienced in recent years, such as Brexit, the pandemic, the Ukraine war, the Cost of Living Crisis, the Gaza war, etc. In the UK, like elsewhere, there has been a significant increase in symptoms of psychological distress.

In the context of work, stress can lead to burnout if not managed properly. As mentioned, it is necessary to act but can easily tip into overwhelm, resulting in inaction and ill health if no action is taken.

The signs that your stress is becoming unhealthy might include:

  • Exhaustion or a complete lack of energy.
  • A drop in productivity.
  • Loss of motivation or pleasure in your work.
  • Irritability and anxiety.
  • Unexplained and multiple physical illnesses, such as headaches and stomach aches.
  • Changes in sleep patterns and eating habits.
  • The use of alcohol or drugs to manage stress or sleep.

If you notice these signs in yourself or a colleague, speak up and seek help. These are warning signs that should be taken seriously.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is implicated in many severe mental illnesses, such as psychosis. It should be taken very seriously. Additionally, recovering from burnout caused by chronic stress often takes a long time, measured in years rather than weeks or months, making it essential to avoid it. Statistics show that most people who leave work due to mental ill health do not return to the workforce.

What can help manage stress so that we can harness its positive effects:

  • Learning about stress is crucial and should be taken seriously. Knowing your own stressors and finding self-care strategies is vital.
  • Learn how to use mindful breathing.
  • Learn relaxation techniques.
  • Exercise regularly. For all of us, one of the most significant positive impacts on our health and well-being is regular exercise—three times a week for 20 minutes with an elevated heart rate.
  • Maintain good sleep hygiene.
  • Follow a nutritious diet.
  • Build a strong social support network.
  • Avoid the use of alcohol and drugs.

Seeking help at the early stages of distress is key to managing it, and having a work culture that encourages this is crucial. It’s similar to addressing slips, trips, and falls in a COSSH approach—reducing the incidence of low-level indicators of psychological ill health dramatically reduces serious problems.

Chronic and problematic stress is the most significant mental health issue we face. In lifestyle medicine, an evidence-based approach to improving health and well-being for all people, there are four pillars:

  • Good diet.
  • Stress management.
  • Sleep.
  • Exercise

Research repeatedly demonstrates that stress management is at the core of healthy living, and it’s about managing it to utilise its benefits for our productive lives. We can embrace a positive view of an active life, utilising our sympathetic nervous system to help us be productive and achieve, as long as we balance that with our parasympathetic response. The great thing about this approach and the broader approach to a healthy lifestyle is that the skills and techniques used are beneficial for all people.

So, even if you have long-term conditions, taking a lifestyle medicine approach will improve your outcomes, even within the context of long-term conditions. For example, research shows that learning to manage stress and anxiety for people with psychosis reduces the number of relapses they experience and improves their body’s response to their medication, meaning they need less medication over time and reduce crisis visits to a psychiatric ward. This is true from the extreme end of mental illness to the more common experiences of conditions such as depression or anxiety.

Managing stress and anxiety improves overall wellbeing

Understanding and effectively managing stress and anxiety are vital aspects of maintaining our mental and physical well-being in today’s fast-paced world. By recognising the signs of unhealthy stress and implementing stress management strategies, we can harness its positive influences and lead more productive and fulfilling lives. Remember that seeking help at the early stages of distress is crucial, and creating a work culture that encourages open communication about stress-related concerns is of utmost importance.

Stress management is a universal life skill with far-reaching benefits, impacting all areas of our lives, regardless of our individual circumstances. It is a critical pillar of lifestyle medicine, offering a path to improved health and well-being for all.

Noel McDermott
Noel McDermott
Mental Health Expert at Mental Health Works Ltd | + posts

Mental health expert Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist and drama therapist with over 30 years' work within the health, social care, education, and criminal justice fields. His company Mental Health Works provides unique mental health services for the public and other organisations.