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.