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What does stress do to us?

Cortisol (the 'stress hormone') is our natural 'flight or fight' response and it's kept humans alive for thousands of years. Normal levels are essential for good bodily function; it helps us up in the morning and to exercise and helps regulate your blood pressure, blood sugar levels and even strengthen's your heart muscle. In small doses it can heighten memory, increase your immune system and lower your sensitivity to pain.

How cortisol works

When the adrenal glands release cortisol into your bloodstream, the hormone triggers a flood of glucose that supplies an immediate energy source to your large muscles. It also inhibits insulin production so the glucose won't be stored but will be available for immediate use.

Cortisol narrows the arteries, while another hormone, epinephrine, increases your heart rate. Working together, they force your blood to pump harder and faster as you confront and resolve that immediate threat.

Hormone levels should naturally return to normal as you overcome the threat (e.g. a presentation deadline, interview, appraisal etc) but if your entire life is high-stress, your body may constantly pump out cortisol.

What's the impact of chronic stress?

When we're stressed, our body produces too much cortisol. It's unlikely to have a damaging effect once in a while, but when we're chronically stressed over a long period of time, it can have seriously negative effects, such as:

Increased blood sugar levels. Insulin typically helps the cells convert glucose to energy. As your pancreas struggles to keep up with the high demand for insulin, glucose levels in your blood remain high and your cells don't get the sugar they need to perform at their best.

Weight gain. As your cells are crying out for energy, your body may send signals to the brain that you need to eat. False hunger signals can lead you to crave high-calorie foods, overeat and thus gain weight. Unused glucose in the blood is eventually stored as body fat.

Suppressed immune system. Cortisol's positive action to reduce inflammation in the body can turn against you if your levels are too high for too long. The elevated levels may actually suppress your immune system. You could be more susceptible to colds and contagious illnesses. Your risk of cancer and autoimmune diseases increase and your may develop food allergies.

Digestive problems. When your body reacts to a threat, it shuts down other less critical functions, such as digestion. If the high-stress level is constant, your digestive tracts can't digest or absorb food well. It's no coincidence that feeling nervous before a big event can give us diarrhoea, or that ulcers occur during stressful times or that people with irritable bowel syndrome find it harder to manage symptoms when they're under pressure.

What are the signs of chronic stress?
  • Fatigue

  • Irritability

  • Headaches

  • Intestinal issues (e.g. bloating, diarrhoea)

  • Anxiety or depression

  • Weight gain

  • Increased blood pressure

  • Poor sleep

  • Low libido, erectile dysfunction or problems with menstrual periods/ovulation

  • Muscle pain/tension in head, neck, jaw or back

  • Difficulty recovering from exercise

What can you do to help yourself?

If you are often stressed, it's really important you work out the cause and find some constructive ways to deal with it. Being aware of your stress levels and taking steps to manage it are a really important start.

Findings some simple things that you can do regularly to help your body reduce cortisol production, even for a short time will have a positive impact on your longer term health if you can't do anything to cut off the root cause of the stress.

What will help you depends entirely on what's causing the stress and your own unique circumstances. Here's some suggestions to consider:

  1. Slow down and plan ahead, to avoid feeling rushed

  2. Aim for a good night's sleep but don't beat yourself up if you're having some issues; it's totally normal to, if you're in a state of high alert and you'll make it worse by worrying about it. Check out the articles in the Sleep section of our blog for more on this.

  3. Laugh more (really!)

  4. Make time to connect with friends and family and maintain a social system. In fact a tight, prolonged hug with someone we love can bring us back to a state of calm.

  5. Take regular breaks (even if they short ones!)

  6. Lean into things that you can change/have some control over, like a new skill or working towards a particular goal.

  7. Get some exercise every day to relieve mental and physical tension. A good stretch or walk is fine, if that's all you can manage. In fact, you should avoid really strenuous exercise if you're very stressed, as it can put even more strain on your already overly alert body and make things worse.

  8. Learn to say no to things that are not a high priority. It's not selfish to prioritise your own wellbeing, there's a reason we're always told to put our own oxygen mask on first.

  9. Use simple deep breathing techniques regularly to hep your body curb the production of cortisol (just 10 deep breaths in and out can help or check out our Square Breathing article). And if you can take 10 to 15 minutes out to meditate even better; try one of our guided audio or video meditations (chose On demand in menu).

  10. Avoid excess alcohol, tobacco, sugar, junk food and caffeine. It may feel like it's exactly what you need to get you through, but all you're really doing is giving your body more work to do to eliminate toxins and breakdown hard to digest food with little nutritional value. Grabs some nuts and fruit and drink plenty of water instead.

  11. Practice giving back by volunteering and helping others. Research shows it can increase feelings of self esteem, social connection and wellbeing.

  12. Ask for help when you need it

It's not all bad news when it comes to stress

When channelled in the right way, stress can be a powerful tool to enable you to perform at your best. Some "stressful" things in life are non-negotiable, you just have to do them e.g. job interviews. The key is to not let the emotions over-whelm you by embracing stress as an asset rather than a problem. There is also evidence that switching your perception in this way, and in this way can make you feel less exhausted too (Strack & Esteves, 2014).

And research shows that simply reminding someone that performance improves under pressure, can in fact boost their performance by around 33% (Jamieson et al 2018).

A great resource on reframing your mindset, is the book Why Has Nobody Told Me This Before (Dr Julie Smith)

If you have more stress than you can handle on your own then, then it might be a good idea to seek stress management counselling or speak to a mental health professional. If you don't get support at work for this, and you're struggling to cope then you should talk to your GP.


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