There was a time not so long ago when stress in popular entertainment was all about turning grey overnight, breaking into spots or losing hair in clumps. When colour rinses, Botox, acne treatment and hair weaving made these signs of anxiety laughable, scriptwriters started using stress as a convenient trigger for killing off people without having to resort to messy guns and knives.
In real life, stress for most of us is about headaches and irritability. For some, it's about losing sleep and getting a pot belly. But most people smile in disbelief when I mention stress causes physical pain and aggravates disease. And it's not just tension headaches I'm talking about, but backaches and joint aches and pain in every conceivable part of the body.
It's always been like that for me. Stress, both physical and mental, gives me a mild but niggling lower back pain. It is often an indication that I am about to go down with fever. Fever, as we all know, is a sign of our immune system actively fighting infection to protect us from disease. Most bacteria and viruses that cause infections in people thrive at 98.6 °F, so raising the body's temperature is a natural and effective way of destroying them.
What stress does is to lower the body's ability to put up a fight against infection, leaving you wide open to pain and discomfort. Chronic stress decreases the body's ability to regulate the inflammatory response, which goes out of control and causes the development and progression of disease, reports the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It does so by decreasing tissue sensitivity to the stress hormone cortisol. Specifically, when under stress, immune system cells are unable to respond to hormonal control and produce inflammation, which promotes diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, asthma and autoimmune disorders. The disease then causes further stress and it turns into a vicious cycle of discomfort.
Stress and associated depression also lowers the benefits of physical activity and light-to-moderate alcohol consumption (one drink a day for women and two for men), reports the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. The finding -- based on measurements of the cardio-metabolic risk marker C-reactive protein (CRP) - lists stress and associated depression as a complicating risk factor of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic inflammatory conditions. It plays a role in the formation of plaque that builds up in arteries, though it did not affect other health markers such as fasting triglyceride and cholesterol levels.
The study suggests that apart from traditional recommendations to increase physical activity, adopt a Mediterranean diet that includes fresh food and alcohol consumption, stress-busting interventions - including aggressive of depression, if needed -are a must to get the anti-inflammatory benefits.
Stay ahead of stress by taking better care of your mind when the going gets tough is the only way out. Exercising is a good way to start as it releases endorphins and helps you relax.
I've been told that meditation works for some, but what works for almost everyone is being realistic about what you want from yourself and people around you. Focus on doing the best you can, without trying to be perfect, or expecting others to be so. Don't over-schedule; cut out an activity or two when you start feeling overwhelmed. And you have to learn to relax and find time for yourself each day to read, listen to music, watch a film or just hang out with your friends or pet.
Anything that gets your mind off your troubles, real or perceived, gives your mind the much needed break from dark thoughts. And if you can calm your anxious mind, it will pay back the good turn by helping your body function optimally.