From how it affects your skin, sleep & more, here are the answers to your most-searched for questions about everyday stress

Stress is an inevitable part of being alive. No matter how many happiness hacks you master, you’ll probably feel stressed at some point in your life due to circumstances largely beyond your control. And even if you’d lived a relatively ‘stress-free’ existence before the pandemic, lockdown might have finally pushed you to the edge.

However, it’s important to distinguish between the everyday stress that we all experience and medical stress. Dr Martin Kinsella, hormone expert at the Re-Enhance clinic, says “when you get stress that manifests itself medically, you start to get medical changes to the body which can lead to physical symptoms such as fast heartbeat, mental symptoms - feeling overwhelmed, worried all the time and changes in behaviours like avoiding certain people or places.” If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, or your stress levels more generally are affecting the quality of your day-to-day life, we urge you to see a healthcare professional. 

But what is stress in a more everyday context? We enlisted the help of Dr Kinsella to answer that, alongside the other most googled questions about stress, to provide all of the answers to your most sought-after questions in one place.

What is stress?

“Stress is primarily a physical response that occurs when the body thinks it’s under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode,” says Dr Kinsella. “This means it releases a complex mix of hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine to prepare the body for physical action. Constant or continued stress will ultimately have an impact on the body and is really bad for the body’s natural hormone levels which control so many things from weight and fertility to mood and skin health,” he explains.

What causes stress?

The answer to this question is relatively self-explanatory, but Dr Kinsella explains that ​​“Stress can be caused by a huge number of things nowadays, from work, friendships and family to world issues and money worries, and so on.” And don’t we know it!

How to reduce stress?

“The key to reducing stress is to get cortisol levels down,” says Dr Kinsella. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the body as a response to stress. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to do this:

• Exercising: “Exercising increases endorphins, dopamine, adrenaline and endocannabinoid, which are chemicals associated with feeling happy, confident and less anxious.”

• Meditation: “This helps to calm the mind and body”.

• Having some time to yourself: “Whether that’s reading a book, enjoying a hobby, or just watching a film, having time by yourself can be hugely beneficial,” Dr Kinsella says.

• Having a massage: “This helps to decrease stress by lowering the heart rate, relaxing muscles and releasing endorphins, which promotes relaxation.”

• Learn something new: “By setting aside time to learn something new, whether that’s a language, sport or craft hobby, you’re giving yourself a break from the other things that are on your mind and also building self-confidence and resilience,” Dr Kinsella explains.

• Avoiding unhealthy habits: “Things like smoking, alcohol and caffeine might feel like they reduce stress, but in fact, over a prolonged period of time, they’ll actually exacerbate it.”

Can stress cause thrush?

Yes, it can. “Most people have a small amount of the Candida fungus in the mouth, skin and digestive tract,” explains Dr Kinsella. “This is normally kept under control by the other bacteria in the body. However, other factors such as stress (as well as medications and illnesses) can affect this natural balance, and cause the fungus to grow and cause thrush.”

Can stress cause nosebleeds?

It can play a role, but there may not be a strong direct link. “Nosebleeds, or epistaxis, occur when tiny blood vessels inside your nose become damaged,” Dr Kinsella explains. “While stress does pose a risk, it’s not necessarily a direct cause and whilst anecdotal evidence links stress to nosebleeds, scientifically it’s more likely that stress is indirectly linked to nosebleeds and that it’s often related to health conditions, lifestyle or behaviour.” He adds, “If you tend to blow or pick your nose a lot when stressed, this can be a contributory factor.”

Can stress cause high blood pressure?

It’s possible, yes. “When you’re stressed your body produces a surge of hormones. These temporarily increase your blood pressure and cause your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to narrow,” explains Dr Kinsella. “While stress alone won’t cause heart and circulatory disease, it’s linked to unhealthy habits that might increase your risk.” These include smoking, being overweight, excess alcohol consumption and a lack of exercise.

Can stress cause acne?

Reading the news can be stressful at the best of times, never mind in the middle of a pandemic. If you think news updates are causing a spike in your stress levels, try to limit what you watch and read. Think about how often you also scroll through social media. Take some time out of your day to schedule in a digital detox, to make sure you’re giving yourself a break from all the outside noise.The answer’s a little complicated. “There’s often confusion about whether stress can cause acne,” says Dr Kinsella. “Stress can’t directly cause acne, however studies have shown that if you already have acne then stress can make it worse. Research suggests that wounds are slower in healing when a person is under stress; this is likely to be because of the chemical imbalances that occur in the body when someone is stressed.”

How does stress affect the body?

“Stress affects the body in a huge number of ways, both physically and mentally. It can affect how you think, feel, behave and even how your body works,” says Dr Kinsella. He points out that if left untreated, stress may also cause inflammation, obesity and diabetes, and may (as highlighted earlier) lead to unhealthy habits that might increase your risk of heart disease. “Common signs of stress manifest themselves in the body with things such as sleeping problems, sweating, loss of appetite and difficulty concentrating.”

Can stress cause chest pain?

Sometimes. “Anxiety and stress can cause chest pain, but it’s always important to seek medical advice if you’re suffering from it in order to rule out anything that may need medical attention,” says Dr Kinsella.

How to help stop stress eating?

If food provides comfort in times of stress, you’re not alone. We definitely know where you’re coming from. If you’re looking to break the cycle, there are some things that can help. “Acknowledging your feelings and that stress is making you eat, rather than hunger, is a good starting point to addressing it,” says Dr Kinsella. “Finding alternatives to eating such as a hobby or healthy drink can also help,” he adds, as well as making sure to eat regular, healthy balanced meals to help reduce the tendency to snack, and practising mindful eating “which will help you recognise the genuine hunger pangs rather than the habit of snacking when you’re not hungry.”

Can stress cause indigestion?

Yes, unfortunately it can. “Stress has a profound effect on the body and can cause digestion issues,” says Dr Kinsella. He explains that this is because stress increases the amount of acid in the stomach, (which can cause heartburn too).

Can stress cause diabetes?

“Most people’s glucose levels go up with mental stress, however some people’s go down. Although stress doesn’t actually cause diabetes, it can often raise blood glucose levels for people with type 2 diabetes,” explains Dr Kinsella. The best friend of “cortisol, one of the main hormones that becomes elevated during chronic stress,” is insulin, he adds. “So, the higher the cortisol levels, the higher the insulin levels and that may create glucose intolerance and potentially lead to insulin resistance in the body which in turn can lead to type 2 diabetes.” In conclusion, “there’s definitely a link between stress and glucose levels and then potentially diabetes in the future.”

Can stress cause a miscarriage?

“While stress isn’t good for your overall health, there’s no evidence to suggest that stress causes miscarriage,” says Dr Kinsella. “About 10-20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, although this number is likely to be higher because many miscarriages occur before the pregnancy is discovered.”

How to sleep when feeling stressed & anxious?

We could all do with knowing the answer to this one! The key is trying to get cortisol levels down, says Dr Kinsella. He suggests doing that by:

• Not drinking caffeine after midday

• Drinking a relaxing herbal tea, such as chamomile, before bed

• Not having electronic devices in the bedroom or using them before bed

• Regularly exercising. Try to finish at least 90 minutes before bedtime though

• Sticking to a regular bedtime routine (sleeping reduces cortisol levels)

• Having a warm bath before bed

• Reading a book before bed or spending a few minutes meditating

You might also find our guide to yoga nidra helpful if you’re struggling to get a good night’s rest.

If stress is affecting your daily life, even if it’s just what would be considered ‘everyday’ stress, don’t hesitate to seek the help of a healthcare professional.