It is far from uncommon to suffer from stress. There are many factors in our modern lives which can cause stress: being overloaded at work, balancing work and family commitments, pressure from our peers to perform, to name but a few.
Stress is far from a trivial concern: it can have devastating consequences on our physical and emotional health. Being constantly under a high level of stress for a long period of time can, in some cases, lead to burnout.
Here are 6 side-effects of stress and burnout which you may not expect.
- Problems Focusing
Being under stress has very real impacts on our mind and body. In terms of mental effects, stress often makes it difficult for people to focus, impairing concentration and leading to forgetfulness. This can be a vicious cycle for those who are stressed due to work or study. The more stressed you become, the harder it is to complete your work, leading to more stress.
- Weakened Immune System
We all know how important it is have a strong immune system: this builds up our bodies’ resilience, helping us to fight diseases such as colds, flu and infections. Stress, however, attacks the immune system. This is because of two main reasons: firstly, the elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol (more on this later) in the blood lowers levels of white blood cells and cancer-fighting NK cells, as well as decreasing inflammation, all of which make up the body’s system for fighting infection.
Secondly, stress and anxiety causes elevated blood pressure, meaning that the concentration of white blood cells and NK cells is lowered further. In the short term, this means you are more likely to catch the cold doing the rounds in your office. In the long term, this can make you more vulnerable to serious diseases and even cancer, as your body is less able to fight infections.
- Lowered Sex Drive
The effects of stress extend far beyond simple mental and physical health – it can even impact on your sex life! It is common for people under stress of a medium to long period of time to experience a fall in their libido.
The main reason for this is hormones. Stress triggers production of the hormone cortisol, which in turn damages your sex drive. For women, these hormones can also disrupt the menstrual cycle, also playing havoc with libido. From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. At times of stress or danger, the body will prioritise essential functions for immediate survival and diminish the less important ones.
- Skin and Hair Conditions
Stress can manifest itself in strange ways throughout the body. If you are prone to skin conditions such as eczema, rosacea or psoriasis, being under stress can make these old issues flair up or make existing problems much worse.
In some cases, stress can cause people to suffer irritated, itchy skin, or break out in hives. In others, people manifest their stress by sweating profusely. It also doesn’t stop with the skin: your hair can be affected, with many people reporting hair loss when under stressful situations over the medium to long term.
- Stomach Aches and General Aches
Stress is often reflecting in our stomach or digestive system. Being under stress commonly causes gastrointestinal problems such as stomach aches, nausea and diarrhea. In severe cases, this may be because stress responses in your body are decreasing the flow of blood and oxygen to the stomach.
Stress can also cause more general aches and pains. Aching muscles are common symptoms of stress, often because people are tensing their muscles, usually without realising it. This, in turn, leads to muscle and joint pain, which is made worse by the fact stress hormones are limiting inflammation, the body’s normal treatment for these symptoms.
- Hormone and Chemical Imbalances
Our bodies have evolved to release particular hormones and chemicals in stressful situations. When our bodies sense a dangerous or threatening situation, they trigger the production of adrenalin and cortisol. Adrenalin helps with “fight or flight” response to dangers and hazards, while cortisol helps us to deal with the situation as soon as possible and protect us from being overloaded by stress.
In a modern context, if we are frequently under stress our bodies will continually produce cortisol and these levels can get out of control. It is important to keep an eye on cortisol levels because people who sustain high cortisol levels over a long period time have a significantly higher risk of burn out. High cortisol levels have also been shown to cause health conditions and problems, such as obesity. Services like Verisana can allow you to test cortisol and other chemicals and hormones, generally through a simple saliva test.
Stress can have a range of often unexpected impacts on us: whether our emotional state, our mind, or body. In the long-term, stress can even lead to chronic health conditions. For these reasons, as well as promoting general wellbeing, it is important to take active steps to manage stress in your life, as well as eliminating the source of stress wherever possible. Such steps will be different for everyone, by they may include adopting a more positive mind-set focussed on achievements rather than failures, developing time management processes, saying no to unrealistic asks, exercising and eating a balanced diet, nurturing relationships with close friends and family, and seeking support from a qualified mental health professional. Whatever your approach, be sure to prioritise yourself, and don’t take stress too lightly!