How Can Stress Affect Your Health?

And What Can We Do To Tackle It?

One of the largest and most comprehensive stress surveys ever carried out across the UK, found that 74% of us were ‘overwhelmed or unable to cope’ at some point in the previous year. This rose to 83% amongst 18–24-year-olds.

Few would disagree that the uncertainties and worry caused by the global pandemic have added to the stresses we face. What does this really mean for our health though? According to Jay Winner, MD, author of Take the Stress Out of Your Life, ‘It can exacerbate just about any health condition you can think of.’ We look at how stress is affecting our health and how we can hope to avoid it.

 

What is Stress?

At the most basic level, stress is our body’s reaction to a ‘stressor’- any particular life event, or situation, which provokes a stress reaction. It’s a built-in physiological response to a threat. This is typically something demanding, challenging or threatening to the individual, which can vary hugely between different people. Stress isn’t an intrinsically bad thing in itself; low level stress can be helpful and motivational. It can provide just the drive we need to get things done.

Even a large amount of stress, has its place – if you’re facing a dangerous situation, stress will activate the adrenaline and quick thinking needed for a fight or flight response. Cortisol is released around your body, which primes your brain to be more alert and respond quicker to stimuli – improving your reflexes. Adrenaline also spikes, enhancing blood flow and giving you more energy. Adrenaline also prohibits pain and can boost your memory to help recall useful information which can help you out of the dangerous situation. 

 

What’s the problem with stress?

Isolated occasions of stress itself aren’t the problem – it is a perfectly natural and functional part of the human body system. The threat to our health comes when a low to moderate level of stress affects us on a regular basis. The body is not designed to be continuously under threat. When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. It’s these hormones which rouse the body ready to take emergency action. They raise your blood pressure, make your heart pound, quicken your breath, tighten your muscles and generally ready the body for emergency action. Over extended periods of time these chemical and physical reactions can cause a whole host of damaging effects on the body.

 

How does stress affect our health?

Long-term exposure to the stress response can exacerbate some existing conditions as well as causing new ones altogether. Some common conditions which are caused or worsened by stress are heart disease, obesity, headaches, depression and anxiety, accelerated ageing and premature death.

Heart Disease – Stress releases cortisol which can increase heart rate and blood flow, which in turn increases blood pressure and can cause heart problems if it continues to be raised.

Obesity – Increased cortisol levels has been linked to abdominal obesity, particularly in women. This can be a viscous cycle as abdominal fat also tends to increase cortisol levels.

Headaches – stress hormones ready the muscles to fight or flight and when the additional tension in the muscles is not dispersed through using them, stress headaches can result.

Depression & Anxiety – It’s perhaps unsurprising that stress can lead to depression and anxiety. Stress can affect your ability to sleep and a study has found; ‘Participants exposed to high psychological job demands (excessive workload, extreme time pressures) had a twofold risk of major depression or generalized anxiety disorder compared to those with low job demands’.

 

What causes stress?

So, what is causing us to be so stressed out as a nation? There are an immeasurable number of things which can act as a ‘stressor’ and something that one person finds stressful won’t necessarily be the same for someone else. However, according to The Physiological Society’s Stress in Modern Britain Survey, our collective top 10 stressors are:

    1. Death of spouse/relative/friend
    2. Imprisonment
    3. Flood/fire damaging your home
    4. Being seriously ill
    5. Being fired
    6. Separation/divorce
    7. Identity theft
    8. Unexpected money problems
    9. Starting a new job
    10. Planning a wedding

Interestingly, for every single stressor event that was listed and ranked in the survey; ‘the reported stress experienced by men was lower than that by women. The average difference was 0.56 points. The biggest difference was in the stress caused by the threat of terrorism, which was 1.25 points higher for women. The smallest difference was for the arrival of a first child.’ It is of course unknown if the women in the study genuinely feel more stress, or the men are less inclined to share the full extent of the impact. This is an inevitable and timeless issue with this type of research but an interesting point none-the-less.

Some of the ‘stressors’ we face remain largely unchanged throughout history. In a similar study by Holmes and Rahe in 1967, the death of a loved one also topped the list of most stressful events. However, divorce and marital separation came in second and third on the 1967 list, reflecting the changing attitudes to divorce in that time. Some others which made the recent study would not have been a problem in 1967 however, including identity theft, losing a smartphone or the scrutiny of social media.

A serious illness is included in the top ten past and present and is certainly a concern for a lot of people. Worries about the length of waitlists and ensuring the best treatment is available can no doubt compound such concerns, which Health Insurance can help to alleviate.

 

How can we relieve stress and anxiety? 

Given how serious an impact chronic stress can have on so many vital systems in the body, learning to manage and overcome stress is a really important factor in maintaining your health. Here are some things we can do to reduce the effects of stress on our health.

Identify the stressor. People can experience the physical effects of stress such as tension headaches, tiredness or and racing pulse, without getting to the bottom of what is causing it. Understanding what the cause is and thinking of practical solutions to alleviate it might seem obvious but can be very empowering and helpful. Most Health Insurance policies offer helplines and mental health support. For example, Bupa’s mental health support provides ongoing, around-the-clock support for a wealth of mental health conditions. If you aren’t feeling yourself, their mental health support team can listen, advise and put you through to a mental health nurse.

Mindfulness Meditation. Research suggests that mindfulness can decrease stress and anxiety. ‘Both Brown and Ryan (2003) and Shapiro et al. (2007) found that increases in mindfulness over the course of MBSR training were related to declines in anxiety, mood disturbance, and other indicators of poor psychological well-being.’ (Weinstein Brown Ryan 2009)

Vitality offers a year’s subscription to the HeadSpace app as part of their rewards scheme for qualifying Health Insurance policies. HeadSpace offers guided meditations and a whole wealth of information on mindfulness.

Exercise. A simple way to relieve the physical symptoms of stress is to do some physical exercise. Even a small amount of light exercise – walking for example – can make a big improvement Ströhle A (2009). Many Health Insurance policies offer gym membership discounts to make it easier to exercise more regularly. With VitalityHealth for example, members are able to get 50% discount on membership at David Lloyd, Nuffield Health and Virgin Active gyms.

Review your lifestyle. Are you doing too much? Can you delegate some responsibilities and slow the pace down for a while. It’s very easy in our modern, fast-paced society, to take on too much and burnout can make us stressed.

 

How can Health Insurance help?

Private Medical Insurance can support the prevention of stress induced illnesses as some of the above examples illustrate. But the main benefit of Health Insurance is the treatment itself for acute illness and the immeasurable reassurance that comes with knowing that if you or your family were ever ill, the latest breakthrough treatments would be available to you and without the long wait. Health Insurance is the ultimate reassurance and the best proactive step you can take to protect your health. It definitely means one less thing to stress about.

Below are some of the benefits of Health Insurance our clients are most grateful for.

Cancer care - 1 in 2 of us in the UK born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime. Policies normally include cancer care as standard, including breakthrough treatments not necessarily available through the NHS.

Sports injuries - Health insurance can save you from long, painful waits for ligament operations, joint replacements, slipped discs, hernia operations and many more. Getting you back to working and living as quickly as possible. (Not for anyone who is paid to participate in their sport.)

Digital GP - Staying healthy just got a whole lot easier. Video call appointments from home; day or night, the same day, prescriptions delivered to your door and direct referrals to consultants as required. Included within the core cover of Health Insurance plans.

Family cover - Many policies can include cover for your whole family, giving peace of mind that if your children were unwell, you would be able to offer them the best treatment, without the wait.

Heart disease - In the UK there are more than 100,000 hospital admissions each year due to heart attacks: that's one every five minutes (British Heart Foundation) Health insurance covers treatment and aftercare.

Stroke aftercare - There are more than 100,000 strokes in the UK each year. That is around one stroke every five minutes and over 1.3 million stroke survivors in the UK (Stroke Association)

To make the process of finding the right policy completely stress-free too, speak to one of our advisers. They will be able to find the policy to suit your needs at the best price and they will do all the hard work for you. Just fill in the short form below to get started.

 

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