Stress: most of us wouldn’t recognise life without it. But how is your anxiety affecting your health and how can you stop it?

Too much stress heightens emotions, so you may find yourself crying or screaming at someone over nothing. Libido levels plummet, your temper frays and the smallest things ‘set you off’. You react hastily to situations, then regret it. As stress levels increase, confidence and self esteem decrease. Ring a bell?

A UN report called stress ‘the 20th-century disease’ and the World Health Organisation described it as ‘a worldwide epidemic’. Suffering from stress isn’t as tangible as say, a really bad bout of gastric flu. But stress-related disorders have overtaken back problems as the most common cause of sickness leave from work in the UK. Stress is so prevalent, we can’t imagine life without it.

Perhaps we should not tar all stress with the same brush. There is such thing as good stress, says counsellor and cognitive behavioural therapist Gladeana McMahon. ‘I have always believed it is easier to distinguish between ‘pressure’ and ‘stress’. You experience pressure when you have the resources to deal with the demands being made of you. Pressure turns to stress when it becomes too great, lasts too long, comes suddenly and ends up with you feeling it cannot be controlled.

Good or bad, stress is more than an feeling. It’s physical. It causes chemical and hormonal changes in the brain, affecting both the body and mind. Chronic stress sufferers become sensitised to the feeling, which means the tiniest stressful situation triggers chemical reactions that are out of proportion with the situation. Being five minutes late for a meeting isn’t as ‘stressful’ in real terms as trying to escape a starving lion, which was probably the biggest concern of out 10,000BC relatives, yet our response to these disparate situations is probably similar.

‘The demands we face – the fast pace of modern life, information overload and financial worries – have pushed up the stress levels’ says McMahon. ‘This is manifesting itself in mental and physical illness. ‘When we are in a fight-or-flight situation, the bosy releases lots of stress hormones, including cortisol to gear the body up to cope with an emergency. Someone who is under chronic stress has cortisol pouring into the bloodstream all the time. In the long term, too much cortisol can damage the immune system’.

Warning signs including getting regular infections, excessive colds, headaches and even muscular aches and pains. ‘Your sleep patterns can be disrupted by stress that is getting out of control. Insomnia is an obvious red flag, but if you start waking early when you’re still tired, that’s a sign of out-of-control anxiety too’ says McMahon.

Extremes as either end of the diet spectum – appetitie levels that drop off a cliff, or constant hunger – are signals that your anxiety is not in check. ‘If you start being excessive about eating habits, it’s a sign that all is not well, ‘McMahon says.

It took a retreat in Thailand for Nadine Farleigh, 41 to get a handle on her stress. An advertising executive doing a job she loved, she was beginning to fell overwhelmed by her own perfectionism. ‘I was always trying to acheive more and remain poised and in control at all times. My partner and I spend weekends at his home in the country and the rest of the week at my London flat. I felt such a failure if I couldn’t rustle up supper at a moments notice, in-between unpacking and checking emails. I was acheiving so much, but it was never enough’.

Like Farleigh, most of us feel that we’re never quite satisified, rarely accepting, and we set the bar sky high – way higher than we would set it for anyone else. If we do manage to reach that bar, we push it up and are increasing anxious about not reaching it. It’s a cycle – a depressing one, at first glance, but a very easy one to break, according to Jacqueline Hurst, a therapist specialising in neurolinguistic methods who treats City big-shots as well as A-listers and high-profil entrepreneurs.

‘Getting a handle on stress is relatively simple. Small changes can yield big results and help us break this exhausting cycle’ she says. ‘People’s thoughts rule everything, and I am always challenging my clients to change their beliefs and their thinking.’

Hurst says the solution is to accept that there are some things you can’t change. You can’t stop the signs of ageing. You can’t make the sun shine on your holiday, and you can’t alter the fact that juggling a job, three kids and a relationship is difficult.

‘Step back and ask yourself, ‘is this ging to make any difference in five years time?’ Ninety nine percent of the time, the answer is no. It’s about putting the issues you face into perspective, accepting that most of the things we worry about are not lifr-or death issues. Mentally shrink the thing that’s worrying you, and it won’t seem like such a big deal afterall.

Written by Thea Jordan and Lisa Reich as Published in Harpers Bazaar, August 2012

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