We all know that feeling of pressure called stress. It can happen when you’re stuck in traffic and running late, when you’re juggling too many demands on your time or grappling with work or family problems – or all of these. Some stress can be energising – it can give you an extra push to meet a deadline or a challenge. But too much ongoing stress can leave you feeling burnt out, affecting both your physical and emotional health.
Your body can react to stressful situations with what’s called the fight or flight response. Your body goes on red alert to cope with what the brain believes is a threat. The trouble is your brain can’t tell the difference between a bad day at the office and someone who’s trying to snatch your wallet.
Either event can trigger the release of stress hormones causing changes in your body that make it easier to fight or run, which is helpful if you need to fend off an attacker. But when chronic stress in your life is keeping your fight or flight system switched on for a lot of the time, your body becomes overexposed to stress hormones.
Each of us reacts differently to stress. Some react more to stressful events than others – and what’s stressful to one person may leave someone else unruffled.
But an overload of stress can affect your mental and physical health in a number of ways, often by making existing problems worse, according to clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Edelman.
Although there’s evidence that people with depression have a higher risk of developing heart disease, it’s still not clear whether stress is a risk factor too, according to Dr Edelman. The National Heart Foundation believes stress may contribute to heart disease indirectly by increasing the risk of unhealthy habits like smoking and overeating.
Dr Edelman says that the warning signs are feelings of being overwhelmed, or as if you’re not coping a lot of the time. You may also experience symptoms such as headaches, neck, shoulder and backache, disturbed sleep, fatigue, heart palpitations, changed appetite, stomach upset, reduced ability to concentrate, anxiety and low mood.
“It’s good to seek help sooner rather than later,” says Dr Edelman. “If everyday stress is interfering with your ability to work or have good relationships with your family and friends for two weeks or more, it’s time to do something about it.”
For more information on reducing stress in your everyday life, see Stress-busting – finding what works for you
You may want to discuss any concerns with your GP. They can also refer you for professional help in finding better ways of coping with stress.
There are also 24-hour telephone support services such as Lifeline (13 11 14) and organisations such as beyondblue that may be able to help you.
Australian Psychological Society
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American Psychological Association (APA). Stress weakens the immune system. [online] Washington, DC: APA. 2006 [accessed 24 May 2011] Available from: http://www.apa.org/research/action/immune.aspx
Bunker SJ Colquhoun DM Esler MD et al. "Stress" and coronary heart disease: psychosocial risk factors - National Heart Foundation of Australia position statement update. Medical Journal of Australia. 2003; 178(6): 272-276.
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