Unravelling the Link Between Stress, Mental Health and Physical Well-being

Written by: Thrishala Gunathunga 

Life is like a wild roller coaster – with lots of ups and downs, especially when we are stressed! But have you ever wondered about the link between stress, your mental health, and physical well-being? 

Many people, unfortunately, overlook this link. Even I had no idea about it until it was brought up in a discussion by one of my lecturers! 

Understanding Stress Response 

Stress evolved as a natural response to threatening situations over thousands of years. It triggered the fight-or-flight response that was important to our survival in the past, such as when we had to flee from predators. 

But stress today has changed as a reaction to psychological tension. For example, stress can be caused by an exam or after ending a romantic relationship. 

Acute Stress vs. Chronic Stress 

As I said, stress is very important for the survival of human beings. Experts say that some people perform better under a bit of pressure. 

For example, consider an assessment deadline at the university. A moderate level of stress can keep you on track, help you to organize your time effectively, and use appropriate problem-solving skills. This is known as acute stress! 

Acute stress can increase the alertness of individuals for a short period by releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. 

However, the problem comes with prolonged exposure to acute stress. This causes “chronic stress” which can then lead to conditions like anxiety and depression, and eventually affect physical wellbeing. 

Stress and Mental Health 

Let’s look at the relationship between stress and depression, which is similar to a chicken-and-egg situation, but in this case, the chicken and the egg are intertwined. 

The delicate balance of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin, which are essential for mood regulation, can be affected by chronic stress. 

With this, the brain’s reward pathways might become less receptive to pleasurable activities, resulting in the development of depressive symptoms. This can then set up a feedback loop to increase stress levels. 

The same is true for anxiety, which is characterised by excessive worry about different situations. Stress in a state of anxiety causes the “fight or flight” response to be activated continually. This eventually leads to burnout and negatively impacts one’s mental health. 

Stress and Physical Well-being 

Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can be released as a result of ongoing stress, and these chemicals can speed up the heart rate, raise blood pressure, and cause inflammation. 

This can increase the risk of atherosclerosis (narrowing of arteries), and eventually pose a risk for heart attacks and strokes. 

Stress-induced inflammation releases pro-inflammatory cytokines thereby increasing the development and progression of some types of cancers. 

Furthermore, blood glucose regulation is impaired due to stress hormones increasing the risk for type 2 diabetes. 

Establishing the Link between Stress, Mental Health, and Physical Well-being 

Now let us look at depression again to establish the link between stress, mental health, and physical wellbeing. 

An individual with depression may engage in unhealthy habits such as binge eating, smoking, drinking alcohol, and doing less exercise. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other illnesses can all be directly attributed to these habits. 

In addition, people with mental health needs may have compromised immune system processes, which increases their vulnerability to infections. 

So even if this is only the surface of the issue, it stresses how important it is to identify stress and deal with psychological challenges as soon as possible because they can have a long-lasting effect on physical well-being. Finally, let us look at some ways to manage chronic stress.

Ways to Manage Chronic Stress 

  • Practice mindfulness meditation to stay focused on the present moment. 
  • Engage in Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) technique which involves tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups for physical relaxation. 
  • Engage in regular physical activity, such as walking, jogging, or dancing, to release endorphins and promote relaxation. 
  • Eat a well-balanced diet rich in whole foods, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Avoid excessive caffeine, sugar, and processed foods, which can exacerbate stress. 
  • Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night and make sure to establish a consistent sleep routine. 
  • Talk about your daily experiences, emotions, and thoughts with friends, family, or support groups. 
  • Engage in hobbies, interests, or activities that bring you joy and relaxation such as reading books, listening to music, going for nature walks, watching movies and so on. 
  • Avoid overloading yourself with tasks and always try to acknowledge even the smallest achievement. 

Keep Stress at Bay!

Written by: Sabeeha Azmi

Let’s talk about stress!

Stress is a psychological and physiological reaction to a perceived or real threat. It is an automatic survival mechanism designed to protect us from danger. This means that stress activates our flight or fight or freeze response. Our body’s stress response only takes a few seconds to activate but it can take a much longer time for us to recover from such a response.

If we look into some of the positive and negative functions of stress, we can understand why a certain amount of stress can be healthy and anything beyond that could be harmful to us.

Experiencing a little stress can help us perform our daily tasks. For example, feeling a little stressed before an interview can lead us to plan and be prepared for it. Other areas where it is natural to feel stressed are during challenging situations such as school exams, conflict with friends or family, unrealistic workloads, during economic crises, disease outbreaks etc. Individuals usually see a reduction in stress overtime as the situation improves or they learn to cope with the situation.

Stress can become a problem for us when it continues for a long time or if the stress we feel is very intense. We can identify two types of stress that could cause serious effects on our lives. Acute stress which occurs within a short period of time but is very intense. This can be seen in situations such as a sudden death or natural disaster. Chronic stress on the other hand, lasts for a longer period of time or can be recurring. This can be seen in situations where individuals face a lot of pressure or if their day to day lives are difficult such as if they are a caretaker or living in poverty conditions.

Our stress symptoms can look like this:

  • Having headaches
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Unable to sleep
  • Decreased appetite
  • Tensed muscles
  • Increased heart rate
  • Shallow breathing

Now let’s take a look at some of the impacts of stress on our lives. Stress has an impact on the social, physical, behavioural and mental aspects of our lives.

Physically, stress can lead us to develop chest pain, fatigue, changes in sex drive, hypertension, heart disease, ulcers, hair loss etc. These can have a serious effect on our health and lead to a damaged and unhealthy system.

Behavioural and social impacts include showing more outward anger, overeating or under-eating, social withdrawal, fewer interactions with others, more arguments with others, substance misuse, less engagement in exercise etc. These impacts could lead to drastic changes in an individual’s behaviour and could affect the quality of their relationships and daily life.

In terms of mental health impacts, stress can lead to decreased concentration, lack of motivation, feeling restless, feeling overwhelmed and irritable, experiencing sadness or anxiety etc. This shows how stress can affect our moods and lead to a negative impact on our mental health.

Understanding the effects that stress has on our well-being can show us how important it is to manage our levels of stress. Here are some tips on how you can develop healthy ways to cope with stress:

Meditation – helps us to focus on the here and now so that we won’t focus on what has already happened or what might happen. There are many forms of meditation and even a few minutes a day can greatly reduce overall stress levels.

Deep Breathing – breathing techniques can help calm the body and brain in just a few minutes. Try out box breathing:

  • Close your eyes. Take a deep breath while counting to 4. Pause and hold for 4 counts and then exhale while counting to 4. Pause for 4 counts and then repeat these steps a few times.

This method allows your mind to shift focus onto your breathing, reducing unnecessary distractions, and helps reduce your body’s stress response.

Exercise – engaging in some activity such as walking, hiking, going to the gym, swimming etc. can help redirect the adrenaline released during stress into something more productive and healthy.

Eliminate stressors – understand what your stress triggers are and try to understand how you can reduce them. Knowing what is within your control and changing some of your daily habits can help you do this. Reducing the number of stressors can help you be more at peace.

Social support – when things seem difficult, reach out to family and friends. Talking it through with someone you trust can provide you emotional support which can reduce your overall stress.

Gratitude – expressing all the things you are grateful for allows you to realise all the good things in life that take you away from stress. Make being thankful a daily habit by writing down what you are grateful for every morning or night, or saying it out loud to yourself or even maintaining a gratitude journal.

Progressive muscle relaxation – often when stressed, we tend to tighten our muscles. Practising this technique can relieve tension and help you relax more. Try this:

  • Take a few deep breaths. Then, starting either from your toes or your forehead, tense each group of muscles, one by one and then release. 

Moving through the whole body will allow you to realise all the tension you’ve been holding onto and in turn help you relax and release your stress responses.

Quality ‘me’ time – most of our days are filled with interactions with others. This can be a stressor all on its own. Try to spend some time by yourself, enjoying the things that make you feel comfortable and happy and which help you to rest and relax.

Remember, stress is a natural response so it is okay to feel a bit of stress from time to time but we have to ensure that it is not excessive. By using the tips highlighted above we can aim to manage our stress so that we can maintain healthy lives. Don’t forget to take some deep breaths and keep stress at bay!