Writing this is a blog is an easy one for me. For many years I have suffered with acute stress at work. Resulting in some of the physical symptoms that I will list (or, as my husband insists, bore you with !)
Stress related neck pain in particular – which sounds a fairly innocuous discomfort – led to severe cervicogenic headaches blighting my life for years. A multitude of healthcare professionals became involved; doctors, chiropractors, physiotherapists and x-ray technicians. I tried extensively over the years; muscle relaxants, heatpads, numbing gels and heavy duty painkillers. All to no avail.
Finally, after many years of sometimes very severe pain I received the correct diagnosis. That the pain was muscle tension and a physical manifestation of my mental stress.
As health and safety professionals we are all aware of the hot topic of mental health at work. With psychological safety now being viewed as of equal importance to physical safety. But I read little on the overlap of where they merge.
Hopefully the below will give some insight into the how’s, where’s and whys the body responds to stress and other psychological conditions as it does. And the ways in which you can mitigate those responses.
How does Mental Stress Affect Physical Health ?
Stress is the body’s method of reacting to real or perceived threats.
When we get stressed that stress may manifest in physical symptoms causing us physical illnesses.
Indeed stress symptoms may affect you without you even realizing it. That irritating headache or your frequent insomnia leading to your decreased productivity which stresses you out at work. Could be caused by stress in the first place !
Lets explore some of the common physical manifestations of stress. Starting with my old nemesis, muscle tension….
One of the first physical manifestations of stress. Can be most pronounced at the base of the head as a stressed person’s fight or flight activation causes muscles to naturally contract.
Stress headaches are often accompanied by a tense neck and shoulders. Stress can also contribute to severe headaches or migraines.
Teeth grinding are almost always a symptom of stress. It can cause further problems such as chipped teeth, severe jaw or face pain and tension headaches.
Changes to Appetite
In the short term, stress can cause a loss of appetite due to the brain releasing an appetite suppressant hormone. Chronic stress for long periods releases cortisol which increases your appetite.
Stress may slow down or disrupt your nervous system as it tries to cope. Leading to serious conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome as the colon is partially controlled by the nervous system.
Increased Heart Rate
Stress chemicals released into your bloodstream can increase your heart rate. This is in addition to the speed of your breathing. Frightening some and leading to the heart further increasing its rate.
High Blood Pressure
Stress can cause high blood pressure through stimulation of the nervous system producing large amounts of vasoconstricting hormones.
Stress hormones released into the body including cortisol and adrenaline may lead to chest pain. Chronic stress can even lead to cardiovascular disease although the connection is not yet completely known.
A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions. Recurrent panic attacks or panics for prolonged periods can lead to panic disorder. Panic attacks typically include all or some of these symptoms:
- Rapid heart rate and pounding heart, chest pain
- Excessive sweating
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Chills or hot flushes
- Lightheadedness or faintness
Panic attacks are not life-threatening but may significantly affect the quality of life of the sufferer.
The stress response can reduce the production of saliva in the mouth. This may lead to discomfort when swallowing food and an increased risk of developing a bacterial or fungal infection.
Stress may lead to surges of cortisol which can provoke cystic acne. Characterized by red, painful spots that are difficult to treat.
Dizziness can be associated with stress and anxiety as it can lead to changes in breathing rates. Changing the CO2 levels in the blood. The fight or flight response can also mean that blood is re-directed from the head to areas that that the body thinks needs it.
Insomnia/ Feeling Tired
Stress and a racing mind can leave you having a tough time shutting down and falling asleep. Conversely, the physiological effect on your body of releasing stress hormones, heart and breathing acceleration can cause a constant strain on your body leaving you feeling tired all the time.
Increased risk of illness
Another impact of stress may be a negative impact on immunity.
Its clear that stress can lead to severe health problems. As a health and safety professional or someone whose working duties include health and safety responsibilities. It is important to be aware of these hazards to an employees mental and physical health.
The new UAE Labour Law, Federal Decree by Law No. 33 of 2021 Regulating Labour Relations, specifically states that employees mental health at work must be protected. This includes their exposure to stress.
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