The World Health Organization has called stress the "health epidemic of the 21st century". As per statistics provided by Health and Safety Executive of the Government, more than half a million workers were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing) in 2016 - 17. A total of 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Work related stress has been estimated to have cost the UK economy nearly £ 8 billion in 2016 - 17.
Stress and anxiety are so common that people often fail to recognise that they are suffering from it; in fact, in many cases, people realise that they are suffering from work-related stress only when they have a heart attack. People think stress is an emotional issue and as a result often do not associate physical health issues with stress. Some people develop their own lifestyle choices or mechanisms to deal with stress e.g. smoking, alcohol, drugs etc. Often excesses in these habits can lead to dangerous health problems like hypertension, cardio-vascular diseases, cancer etc. later in life. Some people simply choose to ignore stress, but if you let yourself suffer from emotional stress for a prolonged period of time, it may lead to a condition called Chronic Stress.
In order to understand the health effects of chronic stress, you need to understand how your body deals with stress. When you are stressed your nervous system releases certain stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol; in the short term the effect of these hormones are beneficial because they help you cope with the stress. However,, if you are exposed to stress for a long period of time, then the nervous system’s response is to create a high level of these hormones in your body. High levels of stress hormones due to chronic stress, may lead to high hypertension (high blood pressure) and subsequently heart disease, damage to our muscles, stomach ulcers, immunological disorders and damage to mental health.
Chronic stress can lead to severe physical and mental health issues as discussed above; it may also render you unfit for work, possibly leading to loss of income. Care must be taken to avoid chronic stress. If you are already suffering from chronic stress, you must manage it carefully and try to recover from the condition as soon as possible. Since chronic stress is now so common, as mentioned earlier, most people do not realise, that they are suffering from stress until it may be too late. It is therefore very important for us to understand the symptoms of stress, so that we can take early corrective measures before it turns into chronic stress.
Symptoms of Chronic Stress
According to the National Health Service, there are multiple symptoms of chronic stress, manifesting in how you feel emotionally, mentally and physically. From an emotional perspective, if you are feeling over-whelmed, irritable and wound up, anxious or fearful and lacking in confidence and self-esteem most of the time, you may be suffering from stress. While modern professional lives are very busy, It is important that you should make every endeavor to be in touch with your emotional side and, if you think that you are suffering from some of the symptoms mentioned above, it is important to seek proper professional help.
From the standpoint of your mental condition, if you feel that you have racing thoughts, you are worrying constantly, finding it difficult to concentrate on your work or you are facing difficulties in making decisions, you may be suffering from stress. If you have these symptoms, you should pro-actively take corrective measures, which may include seeking help from a qualified professional.
On the physical side, if you are suffering from frequent headaches, muscle pain, dizziness, sleeping disorders, lack of appetite or eating too much (more than normal), these may be symptoms of stress. You should consult a doctor and seek immediate treatment, if there are already underlying factors like diabetes, hypertension etc. You should also discuss with your doctor, if the root cause of these medical conditions may be due to stress and get appropriate professional help if required.
Avoiding Chronic Stress
Understanding symptoms of stress before it turns into chronic stress is important, so that you can take early remedial measures. Some of these remedial measures may not necessarily require you to visit a medical practitioner. Physical activity like exercise, sports, yoga etc. can alleviate many stress related symptoms. Breathing exercises and a healthy diet are also extremely effective in dealing with stress.
If you believe stress is caused by work-related issues, then you should discuss it with your supervisor or manager and jointly formulate a plan on how you can work on it, with their support and the support of the Human Resources department of your company. Many people are hesitant about discussing their problems with others, especially in their work-place. However you should realise that your health is your most precious asset; your inhibitions, ego and career, while obviously very important, are of secondary importance compared to your health. Friends and family can provide a lot of support, if you are suffering from work-related or other stresses, you should consider sharing your problems, with them.
If you have a hobby or pastime, making more time for it, can help you deal better with stress. Often a break from work, a vacation or even a sabbatical can help you combat work related stress. It is very important to ensure that you are getting adequate sleep, especially if you are suffering from stress. In these modern, fast-paced times, stress can be possible in many vocations. Some of the simple, self-help techniques we have discussed here can be very effective in tackling stress. However, if you've tried these techniques and feel that they are not working, then you should consult your General Practitioner (GP).
Managing Chronic Stress
If some of the stress symptoms, described above are severe and long lasting, then you may be suffering from chronic stress and you must visit your GP. Your GP will undertake all the initial tests such as checking your blood pressure etc. and is likely to recommend some other tests like blood, EEG, Brain Scan etc. depending on the severity of the condition. Based on the diagnosis, the GP will prescribe a course of treatment, which you will have to follow. You should get diet recommendations from your doctor; a healthy diet can be a significant help in managing and aiding recovery from chronic stress. Your GP may recommend psychiatric evaluation and therapy. Many people are hesitant or even sceptical about seeing a psychiatrist – but it is important to recognize that psychiatric help is very likely to be required in managing severe chronic stress.
Apart from the prescribed course of treatment, there are several useful techniques that can help you manage chronic stress and other health related issues.
- Taking care of your physical health: Simple things like exercising regularly (at least 3 times a week), getting sufficient sleep every night and having a balanced healthy diet can alleviate stress to a large extent and improve your health considerably.
- Learning active relaxation techniques: Many people associate relaxing with watching television or having a pint but these alone are not helpful in dealing with chronic stress. Playing sports (tennis, squash, football etc. depending on your physical condition), breathing exercises, long leisurely walks or even a hot bath can be more effective active relaxation techniques.
- Learning new skills: New skills sharpen your mind and keep it active. The new skill can be related to your health like yoga, aerobics, biofeedback etc. It can also be something that you enjoy doing like music, photography, painting, gardening, reading etc. If it involves some physical activity, it is even better.
- Taking help in your work-place: In the workplace people often keep it to themselves when they are struggling, because they are afraid of being seen in a negative light. But no one will be able to assist you unless they know you need help. You should discuss with your supervisor or manager if you are finding it difficult to cope with your work and feel that you are under undue pressure and stress. Stress can become more exacerbated when challenges in our personal lives conflict with challenges in the work-place. Supervisors can help in practical ways like assisting in prioritising tasks, allowing for flexible working hours if necessary, or by extending deadlines when possible.
- Finding a community: Even though we are more connected with the world through internet, social media etc. people can be lonelier at a personal level than how things were one or two generations back. Remember that you are not the only one, who has to deal with the problems that you are faced with. Through well-chosen social media sites and other channels, you can connect with people who are dealing with similar situations and possibly form a network of friends. They can be powerful allies in dealing with stress and in achieving long term health.
- Meditating: Meditation is a proven technique to cope with stress, it can improve a few medical conditions as well as reap several emotional benefits. Simple as it may sound, it can be a difficult technique to master. However, with the help of experts you could integrate it into your daily routine. You will need to have absolute commitment to your physical and mental well-being in order to benefit from meditation.
In this blog post, we have discussed the health effects of chronic stress. Most people are not even aware if they are suffering from stress and the consequent impact on their health. Accident, sickness and unemployment insurance can be helpful not only to protect your income, but also to reduce some of the worry, concerning times when you are unable to work due to health issues caused by stress or other medical issues, accidents, or unemployment. You should buy accident, sickness and unemployment insurance before you develop medical conditions caused by chronic stress like back or spine problems, certain types of diabetes, depression, heart disease etc. because insurers may exclude cover for these as pre-existing medical conditions. More importantly, you should try to avoid and manage stress related issues, so that you are able to lead a healthy life. It is not just important for you, it is equally important for your family.