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How and why stress and anxiety affect your physical health

Updated: Jan 28, 2019

Have you ever had sweaty palms, maybe a knot in your stomach, felt generally unwell, because of stress or anxiety? Have you ever had severe gastrointestinal disturbances (nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, spasms of your gut…) because you were going through a stressful period in your life? It is important to know why this happens, and how to prevent these symptoms/flare ups.

While I was sitting my Christmas exams in December just gone, I noticed that as exams loomed closer and closer, my mental health got worse and worse. I also noticed that many of my friends felt the same way, from my course and other courses, and I suppose we have come to accept that that is just part of stressful times. In my head I was thinking, exams will pass and I’ll be fine then. However, that meant that in the meantime, for say, those 3 intense weeks coming up to exams, I was not myself. I was trying to keep up ballet and gym and eating well, but time management became an issue then. I don’t want to not be myself for 3 weeks of my life again. I don’t want to have stomach pains at night. I don’t want to see my young, otherwise-healthy friends having to take prescription medications to deal with their stress and anxiety induced physical symptoms. I thought maybe we should preempt this and have a better lifestyle that does not turn chaotic once stress hits.

The first thing I want to address is how and why we get these physical symptoms, in simple terms. Basically there is a mind-gut connection. Your gut actually has a type of brain of its own! It is called the enteric nervous system, which controls how you digest food. When we are stressed or anxious, our bodies go into fight or flight mode, where we are prepared to either run from the situation, or to fight. For this to happen, our blood is focussed on legs and arms and fingers and toes - all the things it needs in order to fight or to run, and definitely does not prioritise other areas like our digestive system, which can be neglected in order to survive in that moment. However, when we are stressed/anxious for significant periods of time, it is not good for our gut health, as you can imagine. People with IBS and IBD will experience the painful gut symptoms that result, more strongly, and this can cause a viscous cycle of stress-induced flare-ups, which themselves are stress-inducing, as the person experiencing the flare up then also worries about their physical health. Obviously with IBS and in particular with IBD (a disease state which involves a damaged gastrointestinal tract, as opposed to IBS, in which the gastrointestinal tract remains intact but the person has an upset gut), the person may need to be prescribed medication or use over the counter remedies. However, the advice below will help people with or without IBS/IBD in terms of improving your physical health during stressful times.

Also when we are stressed, we are not ourselves in terms of getting annoyed over silly things. You know that on a normal day you would not be mega stressed about a supermarket being out of stock of what you’re looking for, but when we are stressed otherwise, we have a lot of adrenaline in our system that makes us focus really hard on one particular thing, and stress and anxiety and overreactions result from this. It really is a viscous cycle, and it is important to acknowledge it when it happens and to guide yourself out of it.

Our physical and mental health cannot be thought of as separate entities, as they truly are entwined. The more physically fit and healthy we are, the better we feel mentally. Conversely, the better our mental health is, the more motivated we feel to continue to exercise and engage in physical and social activity.

One of the very basic things I noticed that people cut down on when they are under pressure is sleep! Sleep deprivation is an actual form of torture. We need to be kind to ourselves and know when to call it a day in terms of study or work or whatever we are anxious about. We have to be able to switch off and be present, not worrying about what happened previously or what may or may not happen in the future. Make sure you see daylight, and get out in the fresh air while it is still bright, because coming to and from work/school in the dark is the worst, so get even the little tiny bit of vitamin D you can get during the day.

Exercise. This links in with sleep. Exercise early in the day before you do anything else, even for 20 minutes, walk or cycle to work or school, get off a stop early, helps with your productivity for the rest of the day, and is a good release of stress. Realistically though, exercise whenever you can fit it into your timetable. trust me, you can make room for it. Plus, if you exercise during the day, rather than remain seated at work and then on the bus home and then on the couch, you will have a better night’s sleep . It all links in together!

Fill your body with amazing fuel. Get micronutrients - fruit, veggies, fibre. Fill yourself up on sustainable macros like protein. Take probiotics to support your gut health (more on this to follow). Hydrate with plenty of water. Easy on the caffeine, and none after the morning (Re: Sleep lol).

Mind-body exercises. Meditation. Don’t knock it until you try it, and when I say try it, I mean really try it. Don’t just do one session, feel distracted and quit. Train yourself in art of just being, in the present moment. Be in the present moment, and put things into perspective. There’s always someone having a worse day than you out there.

Interact with like, real-life people. Take a break, and call someone. Get away from your screen for a little bit and go for a walk around the block with your work buddy on your break. Whatever time you have to spend with positive thinking people, who will agree to not talk about the thing that is stressing you out, do it, even if only for a few minutes. Life is short. Don’t just live for the weekend for social interactions, that’s only 2/7 of your life. I’m great at maths, I know.

Avoid excessive/any alcohol, binge-eating, under-eating, smoking etc. it can be easy to turn to these things during times of stress as an easy escape, but t

is not sustainable and ultimately makes the situation worse. Don’t be your own worst enemy. Be kind to yourself. Don’t put anything into your body that you wouldn’t want a loved one to put into their body.

Of course, these are lifestyle choices, that you can carry with you for every season, every year. If you feel your mental health has really deteriorated, or is acutely bad, such as having panic attacks etc, seek the advice of your trusted health professional, such as your local pharmacist or your GP, and go with someone you trust to see the GP/pharmacist/counsellor/college welfare officer if it helps. Whatever works for you. They may recommend therapy and refer you on, and at some point in your journey you may need pharmacological help, not everyone will but everyone is different (some medication). Getting help is so brave and I applaud anyone who does. Check you out for minding yourself!

And make sure to look out for one another and be able to recognise stress/anxiety in others. It can be easy to be caught up in our bubble and not be sure why someone is a bit cranky with us, but you never know what someone has going on, so just be aware and be mindful of your own feelings and the feelings of others.

Sending love and positivity to you and yours, and wishing you the very best in 2019.

Castletown House and Parklands - my favourite place to destress



For trinity students like myself:

TCD Niteline: 1800793793

Other helplines:

Samaritans: 116123, or drop in

Emergency services (Ireland): 112 or 999


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