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Surprise! 3 Unexpected Effects of Stress


Stress can be sneaky. While there are some relatively universal symptoms it’s important to recognize that different people experience stress in different ways. Each day countless Canadians experience psychological and physiological symptoms that may be related to stress without recognizing the connection.

To understand the experience of stress, we have to first understand where it comes from. Not all stress is “bad”. Stress is an important evolutionary response – a survival mechanism. When our brain assesses a potential safety threat the Fight or Flight response is triggered which kicks the central nervous system into overdrive. Cortisol, a stress hormone, is released in the brain. We get a surge of adrenaline. Our heart pumps faster which means more oxygen and nutrients are being delivered to our muscles, making us stronger and faster than we normally are. This increases our chances of surviving a potentially dangerous encounter, as we have better odds of defeating a predator (in the event of “fight” being the outcome) or getting out of the situation really quickly (if “flight” is what’s chosen instead).

Of course, in today’s society most of us experience stress in non-life threatening situations pretty regularly. When stress takes on a life of its own it can wreak havoc on our minds, bodies, relationships, ability to work and quality of life. Here are a few common experiences of stress you may not have considered:

1. “Worst case scenario” brain

Medical professionals call this symptom a “sense of impending doom or imminent danger”. You may have a gut feeling like something bad is about to happen, but perhaps you can’t put your finger on exactly what. Your thoughts quickly snowball until you’re sure the worst case scenario will play out. Even if you try to rationalize your way out of this thought process, you may be unable to focus on any outcome other than a disastrous one. People who experience this symptom often misunderstand it as being a personality trait (“I’ve always been a worry wart”“She’s a real Negative Nancy!”) rather than a sign that their mental health is less than optimal.

2. G.I. issues

Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and other flu-like symptoms are common responses to high levels of stress. Many people seek the advice of medical professionals for these physical symptoms and for months or even years pursue advice from specialists, going through rounds of allergy tests, living with the effects of stomach ulcers, believing they have irritable bowel syndrome… the list goes on. If we never mention our stress level to our health care provider they might focus on finding a physical cause for these symptoms.

3. Mood changes

When the Fight or Flight response is triggered the brain and body are focused on survival, so adhering to social niceties and tending to the intricacies of complex relationships fall down the priority list. Someone who’s typically a laid back person might find themselves short fused, flying off the handle at the drop of a hat. Understanding your own stress response is an important part of building your resilience. When we have an understanding of why certain behaviours keep coming to the surface we can work to alter unhelpful ones by developing other more positive coping skills.

The issues above are truly the tip of the iceberg. It’s also important to realize that stress can worsen just about any physical health issue. Someone prone to headaches might find they’re more severe when they’re stressed. If you live with asthma you might have complications like asthma attacks more frequently if you’re not taking care of your mental health. Even something as simple as a cold or flu bug takes longer to recover from when we’re dealing with a high stress level. A resilient person keeps their stress level on their radar at all times and is able to reflect and assess how stress might be rearing its head. After identifying it, the next step is to dig in to your “resilience toolbox” and take steps to manage it – exactly what that looks like is a blog post for another day!

Take good care and thanks for reading.

Elizabeth Eldridge is a Psychological Health & Safety Consultant based in southern New Brunswick, Canada. In addition to keynote speaking and corporate training on workplace mental health she is the owner/operator of Arpeggio Health Services, Atlantic Canada’s largest provider of public mental health trainings. Learn more at elizabetheldridge.com, summitcorporatewellness.com and arpeggiohealthservices.com.

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