Stress Awareness Month
April is National Stress Awareness Month, an annual observance to raise awareness about the negative impact that stress can have on our physical and mental health. Stress is part of our daily lives and it’s important to understand how it affects our overall well-being so we can manage it effectively.
In this article we’ll look at some of the causes and cures for modern-day stress in relation to both mental health problems and eating disorders.
If you need support for a mental health or eating disorder, get in touch with our team today.
What causes stress?
Stress can be caused by a variety of factors, including work, relationships, financial issues, and health concerns. While it’s relatively common to experience some levels of stress in our daily lives, when left unchecked, stress can lead to a range of mental and physical health problems (1), including the development of more complex mental health difficulties such as depression, anxiety and in some instances, eating disorders.
When under stress, our bodies release adrenaline, a hormone that increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate - this is often referred to as our “fight or flight” response.
Dr James Woolley, a Senior Consultant Psychiatrist at Schoen Clinic Chelsea says, “You will recognise it as the sensation we all have when afraid of something real or imagined. These changes can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and muscle tension as well as escalating up to a fear that we are about to suffer some sort of catastrophic event such as a heart attack or a stroke. It can be so terrifying that people sometimes check themselves into Accident Emergency or even call an ambulance.”
At Schoen Clinic, we're committed to improving the lives of people affected by mental health problems and eating disorders. Learn more about the highly specialised treatments we offer across three UK mental health facilties today.
Stress can affect eating patterns
Additionally, in order to maintain a state of high alert after releasing adrenaline, our bodies also then release other stress-hormones such as cortisol, which causes the liver to release glucose (sugar) for a quick energy boost to fuel the body during stressful situations (2).
Stress can disrupt an individual's regular eating patterns, leading to excessive or restrictive eating behaviours indicative of some eating disorders. Cortisol is known to increase appetite and the desire for sugary or high-fat foods. Therefore, when an individual experiences stress, they may turn to food to cope with their emotional discomfort. Those who have eating disorders like anorexia nervosa are also more likely to experience chronic stress.
Research conducted on stress and eating disorders (3) supports the claim that stress is a significant contributing factor to the development and exacerbation of eating disorders.
Some researchers argue that eating disorders could be a maladaptive coping mechanism that individuals develop to manage their stress and anxiety, so the way a person copes with stress has a bearing on the link between stress and disordered eating:
- Active coping: When a person attempts to discover useful or active ways to relieve stress, this is a healthy coping mechanism. When someone is actively coping, they are aware of their trigger and find solutions to minimise undesirable outcomes.
- Avoidance coping: The individual engages in destructive or harmful behaviours as a kind of maladaptive coping to avoid dealing with the root of their stress. Those who use avoidance as a coping mechanism may be more susceptible to disordered eating. (4)
Stress affects our mental health
There is no single cause for eating disorders, but they can have a profound effect on an individual's physical, emotional, and mental health, leading to social isolation, depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders.
Stress alone can also have a significant impact on our mental as well as physical health. Chronic stress is linked to depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders (5). Dr Woolley adds, “Physically it is also associated with higher rates of cardiovascular disease (strokes, heart attacks), higher levels of inflammation and impact on the immune system and even risk of cancer.” People who are under prolonged stress may also have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and regulating their emotions.
So, what can we do to manage stress in our daily lives? One of the most effective ways to manage stress is to develop healthy coping mechanisms. The first step is to identify the sources of stress in our lives.
By recognising what triggers stress, we can develop strategies to cope with it. This may include talking to a friend or therapist, journaling, or engaging in hobbies that we enjoy. Some common stress management techniques include relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation, regular exercise, getting enough sleep, cutting down on alcohol and caffeine, and eating a healthy diet.
National Stress Awareness Month is an opportunity to start a conversation about stress and mental health. By raising awareness about the negative impact of stress on our wellbeing, we can encourage others to seek help when they need it.
We can also take steps to prioritise our own mental health and wellbeing, develop strategies to manage stress including taking breaks when we need them, setting healthy boundaries, and seeking support when we feel overwhelmed.
It’s important to remember that stress affects everyone differently, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If you’re finding it difficult to cope with stress it’s important to seek help.
At Schoen Clinic we’re committed to improving our patients’ lives by offering a range of individualised treatments and therapies for stress. We also provide highly specialised treatment for individuals experiencing disordered eating at three specialist eating disorder centres across the UK.
Get in touch today to see how we can help.
This article was reviewed by Dr James Woolley, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist at Schoen Clinic Chelsea on 3rd April 2023. Dr Woolley is a specialist in mental health conditions and welcomes privately insured and self-funding patients to his clinic.
(1) Yale Medicine. (2019, November 15). Chronic stress. Yale Medicine.
(2) Physiology, cortisol - statpearls - NCBI bookshelf (no date). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538239/ (Accessed: April 3, 2023).
(3) Brewerton, T. D. (2018, February 21). Trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, and eating disorders. National Eating Disorders Association.
(4) MacNeil, L., Esposito-Smythers, C., Mehlenbeck, R., Weismoore, J. (2012). The effects of avoidance coping and coping self-efficacy on eating disorder attitudes and behaviors: A stress-diathesis model. Eating Behaviors, 13(4), 293-296
(5) The links between stress and depression: Psychoneuroendocrinological ... (no date). Available at: https://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.neuropsych.15030053 (Accessed: April 3, 2023).
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