By Andrew Vincent MBA DipM
Director, Integra Healthcare Ltd
There is a huge increase in focus on mental health and wellbeing, a topic that has been rightly pushed to the fore during the pandemic, and our mental health may even prove to be one of the longest of Covid consequences. This appreciation of mental health and acceptance of the wide variety of everyday manifestations is paramount to removing the lingering stigmatisation that many feel when opening up about the topic.
It does not help that we tend to associate so much of health as being physical or biochemical, and we are not wrong, of course. We wrongly associate mental health as being essentially ‘mental’ (deliberately left so vague), when many of the identified conditions remain physical and biochemical in their origins, including neurological, physical injury related and… stress. Let’s face it folks, we are a bag of plumbing with a complex bunch of chemicals and electrical pulses dictating much of our existence, and mental health is no different. So, let’s not treat it differently!
So, to kick off treating it the same, let’s reflect on an issue that so clearly has mental, physical and emotional manifestations – stress. But is it a state, a trigger or an illness? Strong argument could be made for all of these. Stress is not always bad. It provides positive stimuli in some cases, leading to better performance and growth, and it is a fundamental component of our fight or flight mechanism, designed to keep us safe. However, I am referring to the more destructive side, and destructive it can be!
Adverse levels or chronic stress can affect many body systems:
• Brain (anxiety, depression, mind fog, mood etc)
• Cardiovascular System (blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke)
• Skin (hair loss, dry or inflammatory skin conditions, acne)
• Joints & Muscles (inflammation, fatigue, aches)
• Gut (irritability, poor nutrient absorption, bowel changes, bloating)
• Immune System (poor immune function, increased recovery time)
• Reproductive System (changes in hormone production, sexual function and more)
Having previously suggested that sleep might constitute life’s greatest cure-all, it would certainly be easy to think that stress may be the evil opposite, and that’s not an unfair accusation. It is also easy to see from this collection of potential effects that many of them are also interlinked. For instance, poor nutrient absorption could lead to decreased immune function and joint pains. In the same way that sleep seems to act as a virtuous circle, stress is undoubtedly a vicious one.
To return to our chemical analogy, a particularly important one with respect to stress is Cortisol, often termed the stress hormone. It has many essential functions, from release of glucose from the liver for fast energy in fight or flight, to regulating sleep cycles. Cortisol plays many vital roles. The issue of chronic stress occurs when a persistence or excess of cortisol starts to have adverse effects.
Problems caused by elevated cortisol are too numerous to examine in depth but just a few will help reinforce its prominence in our wellbeing. For instance, it can lead to inflammation, or cause high blood pressure, and because it regulates release of stored glucose, can raise blood sugar and cause diabetes. It is also very clear that high cortisol leads to weight gain, and we all know that weight gain is linked to a whole heap of other issues.
So, having introduced a topic that we will explore in far more depth over coming weeks - Better health for self through stress reduction - I will start this journey prudently for fear of now leaving everybody - stressed! The easy and free solutions are numerous, including:
• Getting sufficient sleep
• Exercising regularly
• Maintaining a good sense of humour
• Organising, which avoids overwhelm-generated stress
• Listening to music
• Swimming in the ocean
What we mustn’t ever forgot though is that stress is there for a reason, or because of a trigger. It’s great to apply these stress-reducing measures but it is equally important to reflect on the cause of stress. Sometimes these are not easy to remove, like the pandemic, for instance, but in many cases, we can take activity steps to reduce the trigger. But I’m just too busy and overwhelmed to even think about it, I hear you say. Well, maybe that’s a very good place to start then!