How stress harms your body
What you need to know:
- If there is continuous activation of the stress responses, the off-switch may become dysfunctional and the body is constantly in the fight-or-flight mode.
- This is what leads to the negative effects of stress like high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, muscle aches, high blood sugar, ulcers, indigestion, constipation, immune dysfunction, sleep dysregulation, poor memory, mental health disorders, alcoholism and learning challenges. In children, chronic stress can lead to developmental delays.
Dear Doc, I have been stressed lately, feeling very anxious especially following the announcement of presidential results. What can stress do to my body?
Stress occurs when the demands on you feel greater than your capacity to cope. Stress may be good for you (eustress) when it improves performance, for instance in healthy competition, pushing for a specific goal/achievement, strength training, among others.
However, when the stress exceeds what is needed for optimum performance, you are unable to cope (distress) and the stress leads to negative emotions, poor decision making, poor performance, lack of sleep, physical complaints, among others.
When your brain encounters a stressor (such as a fast approaching deadline at work), there is an immediate response pathway that is activated, leading to release of adrenaline and a delayed response that triggers release of cortisol from the adrenal gland.
The immediate response causes your heart rate to go up, the blood pressure goes up, you breathe faster, your body releases more glucose, your muscles tense up, there is increased blood and oxygen supply to the brain and muscles and reduced supply to the digestive system, all in readiness for “fight or flight”. The delayed response helps with mobilisation of energy stores and also has an inbuilt “off-switch” that moves the body into rest-and-digest mode.
However, if there is continuous activation of the stress responses, the off-switch may become dysfunctional and the body is constantly in the fight-or-flight mode.
This is what leads to the negative effects of stress like high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, muscle aches, high blood sugar, ulcers, indigestion, constipation, immune dysfunction, sleep dysregulation, poor memory, mental health disorders, alcoholism and learning challenges. In children, chronic stress can lead to developmental delays.
Since stress is a part of everyday life, the best thing you can do is to build your resilience, increase your ability to tackle whatever life throws your way.
Part of resilience is inherited genetically while the other part is taught either passively or actively os is acquired by repeatedly tackling challenges. Resilience is built by first being self-aware (what are my strengths and weaknesses, how do I deal with stress), learning how to self-manage, creating boundaries, identifying and living according to personal values, adopting positive coping strategies, taking care of yourself, finding and living your purpose and building healthy connections. Positive social support is the greatest building block of resilience. Cultivating healthy thoughts is also vital such as forgiveness, shedding worry, living in the moment and letting go of the past.
When you face a stressor:
Avoid – limit interaction with news or discussions about the elections, including from social media
Alter – change what can be changed (this may not be an option with the poll results)
Adapt – for what you cannot change, you can adjust your attitude or your standards, or look at it from a long term or a wider perspective
Accept – there are stressors that do not need our input though they affect our lives significantly such as national politics, epidemics and death of a loved one. It is best for us to accept, express emotions positively and let go.
I am six months pregnant and lately I have been having panic attacks when I think of giving birth. I had a terrible experience when giving birth to my first child. I experienced a very long and painful labour. How do I deal with these panic attacks and what should I do in advance to avoid similar experience as the first one?
The experience of pregnancy and labour is usually not the same and is not easily predictable. A few women experience short and/or painless labour, but the majority experience very painful labour.
Please raise our concerns with the obstetrician/gynaecologist who is attending to you during this pregnancy.
Discuss your concerns and fears, narrate your previous experience and come up with a birth plan for you, even this early. If you are able to, you can use medication during labour that reduces the pain and you can plan for this before-hand. If it is a major source of anxiety, and with the guidance of your doctor, you can also opt for a caesarean section though this is usually not advisable unless really necessary.
You may also benefit from engaging a mental health professional.
I have a friend who is HIV positive but the wife is negative. They both know about their condition and still love each other. They do have sex without protection and for years the woman has never contracted the virus. I’m just wondering, is there a possibility of her getting infected if they continue doing this?
There is a risk of an individual getting HIV infected if they are in a sexual relationship with someone who is HIV positive, even though the HIV negative person has been in the relationship for a long time without getting HIV.
However, to prevent infection, the couple can use male or female condoms, or the HIV negative partner can use anti-retroviral medication as pre-exposure prophylaxis. In addition, if the HIV positive person is virally suppressed (the amount of the virus is very low ) because of taking effective anti-retroviral medication properly, then the risk of transmission is very minimal.
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