The effects of stress are far-reaching, affecting everything from your gut health to your emotional wellbeing. Get the low down on how to reduce your stress levels
Written by Beth Gibbons on March 24, 2019
Reviewed by Dr Nihara Krause on March 27, 2019
Whether it’s chaotic family life or crazy work deadlines, it’s virtually impossible to avoid getting stressed these days. No wonder nearly 75% of Brits say they’re so overwhelmed with stress, they’re finding it difficult to cope.1
But you can get a handle on your stress levels. Find out what could be behind your stress and how to bring your life back into balance.
What is stress?
Stress is your body’s reaction to pressure,2 and it all starts when the stress response is triggered. When you sense danger – like a car hurtling towards you – your brain prompts the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
These powerful hormones then activate the sympathetic nervous system, which causes rapid physical changes that are designed to help you escape.3 That restless, jittery, stomach-churning sensation you experience when you’re stressed is the infamous ‘fight or flight’ response, helping your body get ready to leap into action.4
How does the stress response affect the body?
The fight or flight response has the following short-term impact on your body’s biological systems:5
- heart beats faster
- breathing speeds up
- blood is diverted from the digestive system to the brain and muscles
- glucose is released into the bloodstream, providing a sudden burst of energy
- senses sharpen
Once your brain is happy that the threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over to dampen down the stress response, bringing your heart rate and breathing back to normal.6
Why do we get stressed?
The body’s response to stress is actually an important survival mechanism handed down from our ancestors. Although nowadays, it’s more likely to be triggered by psychological threats such as running late for a meeting, rather than a sabre-toothed tiger. But a little stress can still be a good thing; it can keep you clear-headed in the midst of any chaos, while that jittery feeling before a job interview can help you focus and power through.7
What causes long-term stress?
While some stress can be good for us, trouble can build up if those stressors (the causes of stress) don’t disappear. For example, if you have a very responsible job or you’re in an unhealthy relationship, cortisol is continually released and your sympathetic nervous system never switches off. This constant state of high alert is known as chronic stress.8
Symptoms of chronic stress include:9
- feeling very agitated and/or restless
- sleep problems
- weight gain
- ‘foggy’ brain
- reduced immunity
- difficulty concentrating
If left unchecked, long-term stress could lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.10-12 A 2019 study in European Journal of Endocrinology followed more than 73,500 women for 22 years, and reported that those with mentally demanding, stressful jobs were more likely to go on to develop type 2 diabetes.13
Chronic stress can take its toll mentally, too. In 2018, researchers from Harvard Medical School reported that high levels of cortisol appear to shrink the brain, affecting memory.14 It could also lead to depression in some people15 – stress negatively affects sleep, appetite and motivation, which are all linked with depression.
How to tackle stress
Your first step is to see your GP to rule out any physical causes. They can also recommend any suitable treatments, such as anti-anxiety medication or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). If you prefer, you can refer yourself to a local psychological therapies service, or download a mental health app to help manage stress.
While it’s not possible to remove all stress from our lives, we can change the way we respond to the triggers. Try these stress-busters:
- practice mindfulness – regular meditation can help lower cortisol levels16
- get plenty of exercise – it reduces levels of adrenaline and cortisol17
- top up on vitamin B6 – a 2014 study in Nutrition Journal found chronic stress depletes levels of this nutrient. Eat wholegrains, bananas and beans, or choose a vitamin B-complex supplement18
- get enough magnesium – this mineral, needed for normal nervous system function,19 can help rebalance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, according to a 2016 German study20
- breathe deeply from your abdomen – rather than high in your chest. This helps to lower cortisol levels, and reduce your heart and blood pressure21
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
1. Mental Health Foundation. Mental health statistics: stress
2. Mental Health Foundation. Stress
3. NHS North West Boroughs Healthcare. Fight Or Flight
4. Mind. How to manage stress
5. Harvard Health Publishing. Understanding The Stress Response
6. As above
7. Healthline. Everything You Need to Know About Stress
8. As above
9. Aaron Kandola. Medical News Today. What are the health effects of chronic stress?
10. Kulkarni S, et al. Stress and hypertension
11. Liu Y-Z, Wang Y-X, Jiang C-L. Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases
12. Petrie JR, Guzik TJ, Touyz RM. Diabetes, Hypertension, and Cardiovascular Disease: Clinical Insights and Vascular Mechanisms
13. Fagherazzi G, et al. Mentally tiring work and type 2 diabetes in women: a 22-year follow-up study
14. Echouffo-Tcheugui JB, et al. Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures: The Framingham Heart Study
15. van Praag HM. Can stress cause depression?
16. Rosenkranz MA, et al. A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation
17. Harvard Medical School. Exercising to relax
18. Stough C, Simpson T, et al. Reducing occupational stress with a B-vitamin focussed intervention: a randomized clinical trial: study protocol
19. National Institutes of Health. Magnesium
20. Wienecke E, Nolden C. Long-term HRV analysis shows stress reduction by magnesium intake
21. Tim Jewell. Healthline. What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing?