Most of us have experienced stress and anxiety to some degree during our lives. But many people are living with excessive worry day in day out. The constant “what if…” running through their brain everyday; “what if I miss my deadline”, “what if I’m late”, “what if they don’t like me”. Constantly looking forward, trying to plan for every eventuality. We all know that it feels pretty horrible to be in this state but many don’t realise that chronic stress can have a serious impact on long-term physical as well as psychological health, due to sustained time spent in ‘fight or flight’ mode.
Mind and body are inextricably linked and the interaction between them can produce physical changes. Our brain notices a stressor, which triggers a physical reaction, this reaction can lead to further emotional reactions, which affect our mental and physical wellbeing. Some problems such as headaches and muscle tension are often directly caused by the bodily responses that accompany stress. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) works with the links between body, mind and behaviour to reduce both the long and short term effects of stress and anxiety.
Here are some of the effects that chronic stress can have on our bodies if left untreated:
Heart and cardiovascular problems
Constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and blood pressure, take a toll on the body. This long-term ongoing stress can increase the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke. The common stress response of eating comfort foods, with their accompanying fat and salt, is another contributing factor.
Headaches & Muscle tension
When muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and promote stress-related disorders. For example, both tension-type headache and migraine are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck and head. Back ache can also be linked to muscle tension.
When you’re stressed, you may eat much more or much less than you usually do. If you eat more or different foods, or increase your use of alcohol or tobacco, you can experience heartburn or acid reflux. Stress or exhaustion can also increase the severity of heartburn pain.
Your stomach can react with “butterflies” or even nausea or pain. You may vomit if the stress is severe enough. And, if the stress becomes chronic, you may develop ulcers, IBS or severe stomach pain. Stress also affects digestion, and what nutrients you absorb. It can also affect how fast food moves through your body and can cause diarrhoea or constipation.
Illness & infection
There is no doubt that under stress the immune system is suppressed, making you more vulnerable to infections. Allergies and autoimmune diseases (including arthritis and multiple sclerosis) may be exacerbated by stress. This effect can be partly offset by social support from friends and family. Being stressed also slows the rate at which you recover from any illnesses you already have.
Stress is known to aggravate skin problems such as acne, psoriasis and eczema. It also has been linked to unexplained itchy skin rashes. These skin problems are themselves intensely stressful.
Sexual desire and fertility
Feeling constantly stressed and worried is exhausting, it makes you tired and for both men and women can reduce interest in sex. Research tells us that stress boosts levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can inhibit the release of sex hormones. Subsequently this may suppress ovulation in women, reduce sperm count in men and lower libido in both women and men.
Menstruation and PMS
Stress may affect menstruation in several ways. For example, high levels of stress may be associated with absent or irregular menstrual cycles, more painful periods and changes in the length of cycles. Stress may make premenstrual symptoms worse or more difficult to cope with.
It’s important to remember that most negative symptoms can be corrected if you take action. If you are at all worried, do not delay in getting advice — your peace of mind is worth the effort. The problem will most likely not go away and the worst thing you can do is ignore it.
By addressing the negative thought processes that start the feelings of stress and anxiety. By tackling the “what if’s”, CBT is extremely effective at reducing anxiety and thus preventing some of the symptoms listed above. CBT for anxiety works by returning the sufferer in to the present using a variety of grounding techniques, it also teaches how to identify and deal with negative thoughts, and ways to problem solve real worries and concerns. By the end of therapy the client should be able to reason a more balanced view stressful situations and draw on a variety of coping strategies to deal with whatever life throws at them.
If you would like to discuss your own problems with anxiety or want to book your first CBT appointment, please contact openskytherapy.com for more details.