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  • Writer's pictureSimone Grove

5 ways stress impacts health and recovery 

You may already know that stress impacts our immune system – so it makes sense that it can massively affect our ability to stay well. From preventing illness to recovering from it, our body requires a delicate balance within in order to function optimally.


It is especially unhelpful for recovery when dealing with cancer – or any other serious illness or condition. As a cancer wellness coach, I’m passionate about supporting people living with cancer to feel more empowered and informed when it comes to feeling better and navigating their journey of recovery.


Sometimes we’re not aware of the fact that we are stressed – or that it is having an effect on our body. Over time, we may get used to being in a state of chronic stress. But whether we have noticed it or not, stress can have profound effects on both our mental and physical health. Here I’m sharing five different areas which tend to be most significantly impacted – see if any resonate with you, as this may indicate that stress is having a greater influence on your wellbeing than you realise.


1/ Mental Health


Our mental health is just as important as our physical health – so it should always be a priority alongside keeping our general wellness in check. Chronic stress is a known risk factor for the development or exacerbation of anxiety and depression – because persistent stress can contribute to changes in brain chemistry and impact mood-regulating neurotransmitters. Dealing with constant stress is emotionally exhausting, too, which can lead us to feel fatigued, irritable, sad, restless or angry on a more regular basis.


I talk a lot about how our thoughts and emotions and our mindset influence our overall health and wellbeing – so this is an area I tend to work on with most clients and it’s something I’m incredibly passionate about. You can learn more about the mind-body connection and how our thoughts and emotions can shape our physical health and wellbeing here. 


2/ Cardiovascular health


Stress activates our ‘fight or flight’ response, which leads to the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Prolonged elevation of these hormones can contribute to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of cardiovascular problems. When you’re dealing with any other conditions, cardiovascular issues pose a significant risk of complication – and medication needed to deal with them can also trigger side effects without tackling the root cause of the issue.


3/ Immune System Suppression


Stress has an instant and prolonged effect on our immune system – because during the body’s stress response the function of the immune system is suppressed. This weakened immune response can leave you open to picking up more infections and illnesses – as well as affecting the body’s ability to recover from illness. Wherever you are in your cancer journey - or if you are living with disabilities or chronic conditions - being even more vulnerable to illness could be dangerous or potentially life-threatening. That’s why managing stress and supporting immune function needs to be a key focus for anyone living with existing health conditions. 


4/ Digestion


Most people are familiar with the digestive problems that accompany stress – whether it’s suddenly dashing to the toilet before a big presentation or more persistent struggles such as chronic constipation. Over 13 million people in the UK suffer with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which is thought to be triggered, and in some cases caused by, stress.


Stress can impact the digestive system in a number of different ways – including disrupting the delicate balance of our gut’s microbiome to affecting our ability to process food. Over time, this can lead to symptoms such as indigestion, pain and discomfort, and changes in bowel habits.


5/ Sleep Disturbances:


Many of my clients say they suffer with insomnia and disrupted sleep as a result of stress. They either struggle to get to sleep at all (due to racing thoughts, feeling ‘wired’ or too anxious) or they wake during the night or wake up feeling tired despite having been asleep for hours. 


Stress can interfere with the ability to relax and fall asleep – but it may also contribute to conditions like insomnia or lead to disrupted sleep patterns, affecting the overall quality of rest.


When we sleep, many of the body’s vital healing processes take place. Over time, lack of sleep can build into ‘sleep debt’ which not only leaves us tired and affects our cognitive function and focus, but can also impact upon other areas of health such as immunity, hormone balance and mood.


Managing stress and its impact on our health


It's important to note that the impact of stress can vary from person to person – so different people may experience different physiological and psychological responses. But if you recognise any of the symptoms above in yourself, it may be time to focus on addressing stress as a priority.


Managing stress is crucial to enable us to maintain positive overall health and wellbeing – whether dealing with a cancer diagnosis or not. On top of this, chronic stress is associated with an increased risk of developing or worsening various health conditions, including diabetes, autoimmune disorders, and chronic pain conditions.


Adopting stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness, exercise, adequate sleep, and seeking social support can play a key role in mitigating the negative effects of stress – and in turn helping you to live a happier, healthier life. If stress becomes overwhelming or persistent, it's best to consult with healthcare professionals or mental health experts for guidance and support. 


You can find more resources on tools and techniques for managing stress here.

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