Some stress can enhance our performance, but too much leads to all sorts of health problems, writes Debra Aspinall

The number one cause of illness in the UK is stress, with four out of 10 of us seeing the doctor because of it. According to a recent poll by Atomik Research, 59% of us are more stressed now than five years ago. The increasing use of social media and the constant bombardment of information into our personal space through emails and 24/7 news can take some of the blame for the added stresses of modern life.

But what is stress? In a nutshell it is our bodies’ response to the challenges in life – real or imagined.

In caveman times our ancestors used stress for a fight or flight response to danger. Hormones released when faced with a stressful situation (like a nearby sabre-toothed tiger) give a person quicker physical reactions and energy to fight the wild animal or run away swiftly.

The sudden boost of adrenaline and other stress hormones being released into our bodies prompts our hearts to quicken, our pupils to dilate and our muscles to tighten. At the same time our digestion halts, blood pressure rises and our immune system is suppressed.

Now that’s all well and good when faced with danger, but we don’t have many sabre-toothed tigers in Buckinghamshire and we don’t really need to react so “efficiently” just because our internet goes down, our boss piles another last-minute job on us, or we miss out on the last parking space in the car park. But we react in exactly the same way, releasing this flood of stress hormones.

So as our bodies constantly prepare for emergencies that never happen, these hormones cause our adrenal glands to burn out and spread toxins throughout our bodies while we sit at a desk or stuck in a traffic jam.

Some stress at work is inevitable, it’s an inherent part of getting things done; of moving projects on. Some of us face daily stressors, whether that’s pushing a team of sales people to meet targets or dealing with life and death situations in the medical profession or the police force.

Seasoned actors will admit to stage fright (a form of stress) but the adrenaline rush and knot in the stomach can be performance boosters.

And there is a close link between fear and excitement – hence the thirst for horror movies or rollercoasters.

But there appears to be a specific level of anxiety which allows us to perform well in a situation. Too little fear makes us blasé and we can put ourselves in danger, too much fear can make us clumsy or even paralysed with fright.

Common culprits which can lead to stress include pressure to perform (work, school, sports, sexually, socially), threats of physical violence, money worries, arguments, family conflicts, divorce, bereavement, unemployment, moving house , alcohol or drug abuse.

Anyone can suffer from stress. It can cause irritability, a loss of concentration, memory problems, low mood, anxiety, tiredness, a lack of interest and insomnia. It is also linked to physical symptoms like heartburn, palpitations, loss of appetite, overeating, headaches and erectile problems. And it can be a major factor in many conditions including heart disease, IBS, skin conditions, asthma and ulcers.

The most damaging stress seems to relate to the way we are expected to do a job or where the demands of work exceed our expectations or skills. This sort of stress is most likely to lead to illness. In other words when we feel hopeless or out of our depth. The same applies to stress brought on by a trauma or loss (be it a redundancy or a bereavement).

When the symptoms of stress, fear or anxiety start to interfere with our day-to-day living we should seek help to deal with it.

The key is to learn how to deal with it and give our minds an opt-out with something better to do. We need to stop responding to stress factors.

Relaxation techniques and deep breathing can help; you could also try power naps, listening to relaxing music, dancing, stress-relief exercise like yoga or Pilates. Changing your job, your working hours or practices might be an answer.

Hypnotherapy can help by addressing the issue subconsciously and therapists can teach their clients self-hypnosis to combat stress. Another technique is the NLP (neuro linguistic programming) method of anchoring, whereby positive pleasant thoughts become associated with a simple anchoring movement (for example squeezing the thumb and forefinger together) to override potential stress triggers.

Help is available, so don’t let stress affect your health and your life.