Stress and related illnesses

chronic fatigue syndrome

What is stress?

Stress is the body’s physiological response to a perceived threat, a mechanism designed to get us out of danger. In the modern world the stress response is triggered by events that would not necessarily be considered a threat, such as a work deadline, being late for the train, juggling multiple tasks, confrontations and relationship problems. People therefore experience stress from multiple sources on a daily basis. However, normal life-related stress can also escalate to a point where it becomes overwhelming. Feeling stressed may also progress to stress-related illnesses.

What causes stress?

Potential stressors are ubiquitous. Some people may appear to take large amounts of stress in their stride whereas other people may feel overly stressed at something seemingly small. People cope differently with stress depending on their personal resilience levels, how they deal with situations and their perception of what is stressful. People often feel stressed when they experience:
  • Periods of significant change
  • Being under pressure
  • Unpleasant working or living conditions
  • Loss of control
  • Significant life events
  • Personal and life worries
  • Lack of appreciation or reward
  • Poor support structures
  • An accumulative effect of multiple stressors

What are the symptoms of stress?

Symptoms and feelings associated with stress include:
  • Irritability and annoyance
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Being indecisive
  • Feeling anxious or nervous
  • Worrying
  • Difficulty switching off and relaxing
  • Difficulty getting to sleep or falling back to sleep
  • Headaches and migraine
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Feeling ‘tired but wired’ (tired but unable to relax)
  • Tension and aches in neck, jaw and shoulders
  • Lack of appetite
  • A tendency to snack on sweet or highly palatable foods, or overeat in general

What are stress-related conditions?

Stress can lower the body’s immune defence and lead to illness. Stress is also associated with behavioural changes, depression and anxiety, insulin resistance, diabetes, osteoarthritis and autoimmune diseases.

What can you do to prevent stress levels escalating?

Recognising that you are stressed and getting support is the first step, before stress levels become too high. The first point of call can be talking to supportive friends and family members. Counselling and psychotherapy may help to provide coping strategies for managing unavoidable stressful situations.

What diet and lifestyle strategies can help you cope with stressful life periods?

Self-care is seldom a priority at difficult times and people adopt poor diet and lifestyle habits to help them cope. However, poor eating patterns such as skipping meals, consuming too many sugary or caffeinated drinks or drinking alcohol could instead increase stress levels and affect coping ability. Likewise lifestyle habits such as staying up late, working without breaks and using electronic devices in the evening may further disrupt sleep cycles and increase stress levels.

Strategies to support general health and wellbeing include:
  • Have regular meals throughout the day
  • Eat balanced meals, including all food groups (protein, fats, carbohydrates, vegetables and fruit)
  • Eat lower glycaemic index and wholegrain carbohydrates (e.g. oats, pumpernickel bread, sweet potato, brown rice)
  • Eat a large variety of fruit and vegetables
  • Avoid high sugar, highly refined and processed food
  • Avoid sugary or caffeinated soft drinks
  • Limit caffeinated tea and coffee drinks
  • Turn off the television early to get some relaxation time before bed
  • Avoid using electronic devices before bed
  • Make time for social and leisure activities
  • Take breaks and holidays
  • Exercise regularly
  • Do a few relaxing activities a week
  • Have regular breaks from and limit social media exposure
  • Avoid using alcohol and drugs
  • Whenever possible identify and avoid what makes you stressed
A Nutritional Therapist can help you identify diet and lifestyle factors, which may be contributing to your symptoms.