The Health and Safety Executive define stress as "the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed on them." The HSE have reported that in 2003/4, 12.8 million working days were lost to stress, depression and anxiety and that up to 5 million people in the UK feel "very" or "extremely" stressed by their work.

Everyone suffers from stress to varying degrees. Prolonged stress is the most damaging and can adversely affect all the bodily processes, as the body hasn't the time to recuperate, causing numerous physiological and psychological problems.

Why Do We Suffer From Stress?

Any kind of change or even imagined change can cause stress. Throughout our lives we are constantly subjected to stressful situations and emotional traumas, starting with being separated from our mothers at birth! We then become stressed when we are hungry and need changing or a hug and as we grow up our interactions with other people generate stress such as: gaining parents and peers approval, pressure to succeed at school, work or in other areas of life, forming relationships and relationship breakdowns, bereavement. Other stresses include:

• Work life

• Finding work

• A job promotion

• Unemployment

• Commuting

• Environmental factors (such as external toxins, tobacco, pollution, alcohol, food)

• Exams

• Moving house

• Driving

• Shopping

• Having children

• Illness and injuries

Stress attacks us from every direction on a daily basis. No one is immune to stress, whether they think they are or not! Stress may not necessarily be expressed outwardly but internalised. It is often said that stress is an essential motivation tool to help us achieve more but it is when we are in a true state of relaxation that our bodies are most productive and our minds are the most focused and concentrated. If we can reduce our stress levels as much as possible in our lives we have a much greater chance of developing physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

The Effects of Stress

If stress becomes chronic it can have numerous detrimental effects on our health. Below is a list of just some of the conditions that have been linked with stress:

Depression – thought to be due to the continuous release of the stress hormone cortisol by the adrenal glands, resulting in a serotonin imbalance.

Damaged Immune System – Stress can:

• Suppress the immune system's response to infections. There have been some studies demonstrating that people suffering from chronic stress have low white blood cell counts. This makes them more susceptible to colds and infections.

• Stress can trigger the release of cytokines (protein molecules released by the immune system to cause a reaction in other cells) in the body, causing an inflammatory response throughout the body. As a result of this the the adrenal glands produce cortisol and other glucocorticoid (anti inflammatory) hormones to suppress the immune system and inflammation reactions once the infection has cleared. However, in cases of chronic stress the cortisol levels remain continuously elevated so the immune system is constantly being suppressed.

• Conversely in some situations stress can generate an overactive immune system, increasing the risk of developing autoimmune diseases (where the immune system attacks your own body). In addition stress can aggravate the symptoms of autoimmune disorders that are already in existence.

Cancer – Some studies on animals have demonstrated that excessive levels of stress had detrimental effects on the functioning of the immune system and was a contributing factor in tumour growth. Stress can also lead to self destructive behaviour (such as drinking alcohol, drug taking, poor diet), which could potentially contribute towards developing cancer.

Allergies – Stress can make allergies worse by impairing immune system function, either by suppressing it or making it overactive. Stress can also aggravate skin conditions such as: eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis and acne.

Insomnia – Stress can cause insomnia as someone who is chronically stressed will often lay awake thinking about their problems. In turn sleep deprivation then causes further stress and may result in an impaired nervous system function. Sufferers of insomnia may feel extreme fatigue, irritability and poor memory amongst other symptoms.

Memory Problems – The immediate effect of stress can prove detrimental to our short term memory. Chronic stress can cause loss of concentration in sufferers along with a tendency to be more accident prone. Some studies have demonstrated that prolonged exposure to the stress hormone cortisol can lead to the hippocampus (vital for long term memory storage) shrinking.

Sexual and Reproductive Problems – Stress can result in a decrease in sexual desire, impotence in men and an inability to orgasm in women. Stress can also diminish fertility, interfering with the ovulation process. Stress hormones adversely affect the hypothalamus (which regulates the ovaries amongst other things). Stress can also stop menstruation completely.

Pregnancy Problems – Stress can interfere with adrenal hormone levels or resistance in the arteries in a pregnant woman, which can affect the blood flow to the placenta. Stress during pregnancy has been linked with a higher risk of miscarriage, premature births and low birth weights. This is said to be due to the presence of high levels of Corticotropin- releasing hormone in the blood, which encourages early births. There has also been evidence that stress in a pregnant woman can affect the way the baby's brain and nervous system respond to stressful situations.

Cardiovascular problems – Stress can cause blood vessel constriction, palpitations and 'sticky' blood, elevating the risk of blood clots and high cholesterol - due to the impaired metabolism of fat deposits and the release of cytokines causing damaged arteries. Stress is one of the main causes of high blood pressure. Recent studies have also demonstrated how high stress levels can increase the risk of a stroke.

Headaches/ Joint and Muscular Pain – It has been said that stress can increase chronic pain caused by various conditions. Stress can also cause headaches, especially stress caused by emotional traumas.

Digestive Disorders – The brain and intestine are highly connected and the enteric nervous system regulates gastrointestinal motility. Stress can delay the production of stomach acid and digestive processes, slowing or even halting digestion. Prolonged stress can irritate the gastrointestinal tract and cause problems such as: diarrhoea, constipation, cramping and bloating. Stress has been linked with: Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Peptic Ulcers, Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn's Disease, Leaky Gut Syndrome.

Eating Disorders – Stress elevates cortisol levels which can potentially cause cravings for sugary, salty or fatty foods to relieve tension. This results in weight gain. This can then cause feelings of low self esteem in the sufferer, increasing stress levels and resulting in further comfort eating. Studies have shown that the release of the stress hormone cortisol seems to encourage the accumulation of fat in the abdominal area around the liver and other vital organs.

Stress can also cause a reduced appetite, therefore cause weight loss and in some cases an overactive thyroid.

Diabetes – Stress has been linked to Diabetes as it can effect how the body utilises insulin to regulate blood glucose levels, causing persistent high blood glucose levels.

Page 2 - How Can Reiki Help With Stress?

Stress Management

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