POSTED: January 09 2021
The science behind long-term stress

The science behind long-term stress

We’re not designed to deal with this protracted period of stress, so how can we combat it? Says Dr Peter Mills, clinical director, Cigna Europe who takes a closer look at how stress impacts our bodies, what can be done about it and practical advice on combatting.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted almost every part of life across the globe and continues to play a major part in fuelling stress. The emotional toll the virus has had on so many people, not to mention the experiences of isolation, loneliness, financial hardships and mental health trauma cannot be underestimated.

Every aspect of our lives, whether that be personal, professional and cultural, is different now. In place of the day-to-day interactions, we used to have both in and outside of the office, we’re now logging on to work earlier instead of a commute, working through lunch, eating that lunch at our workstations, watching TV and then going to bed. Instead of meeting friends or family for dinner and drinks followed by a visit to the local cinema at the weekend, we now catch-up with friends via digital platforms and only venture out for essential travel or shopping.

Over time, this lifestyle can have a profound impact on how we feel. Our latest Cigna 360 Well-being Study found that across every aspect of lives – physical, social, family, finance and work – Brits are becoming less satisfied with the world around them and this, coupled with the ongoing uncertainty and anxiety of the current situation – means that as many as 76% of us are currently experiencing stress.

“We need to help people focus on improving every aspect of their whole health”


How does stress impact our bodies?

All of us at one time or other would have heard the phrase ‘flight or fight’. At its most basic level, this trained, mammalian evolutionary reaction occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. Most – if not all of us – have been in certain situations when something scary or untoward happens; you can physically feel your body releasing adrenalin from just above our kidneys, along with a stress hormone, cortisol.

Cortisol is a necessary hormone, helping to regulate a variety of outputs in the body including blood sugar, blood pressure and metabolism. But combine it with adrenaline, and the impact both have on our system can be profound. Our heart rate increases to get more oxygenated blood in our body, our muscles expand to help us escape the situation and our breathing becomes faster and shallower to help us take in more oxygen.

This surge of chemicals directly delivered to a person’s blood stream also impacts how our brains process information. As the body prepares to either ‘fight or flight’, vision becomes focussed on the situation at hand and memory can be affected as concentration is drawn towards the cause of the stress. Long-term exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can wreak havoc on almost all of our body’s processes, increasing risk of many health issues, from heart disease and obesity to anxiety and depression.


How does this impact us long-term?

This physiological process is not designed to be triggered on a daily/hourly basis and almost certainly not designed to deal with a 10-month global pandemic. Our bodies are simply not able to deal with such long and protracted stressful scenarios such as the one we currently face, therefore those stress hormones that are there to assist us in times of danger and acute stressful situations, eventually shut down. Those hormones can only achieve that heightened sense of alertness for a period of time before having to take it down a few notches which can ultimately be detrimental to our whole health.


What can be done about it?

There are a number of explanations as to why someone may feel under significant stress at any given time, over and above the current crisis we live in. Do they for example have high demands vs low control over their day-to-day lives? Do they have to put in a high amount of effort for little reward (financial or otherwise)? We know that if these areas of a person’s life are out of balance, they are much more likely to experience prolonged stress and eventually, poor physical and mental health.

Coupled with the fact that we don’t have any extracurricular activities such as a group exercise class at the gym, Sunday football, hiking group, nights out with friends and the likes, means we have no downtime to balance the high demands. We need to have that downtime to have enjoyment – the de-stressors have all gone but the stressors have racked up.


How can we combat it? 

  1. Regularly exercising/ doing physical activity daily will have a positive impact on our energy and stress levels. One of the biggest and most effective therapies for people with psychological issues is activity. Choose something enjoyable that gets the heart pumping
  2. Having a balanced diet will make massive improvements, as will eating at regular intervals
  3. Having regulated sleeping patterns will help. There is a temptation to stay up later to watch another episode of a popular series on Netflix or getting into a different time zone when gaming, but regulating the sleep and wake cycle can help
  4. Try to make an effort to communicate and convene with others – even if it is remotely. It provides us with a feeling of purpose
  5. Check in with yourself – self-care has never been so important. Take time out of the day to have some ‘me’ time. It’s extremely important to give your mind and body permission to relax and help to release those surging stress hormones
  6. Finding what is right for you and not being afraid to ask for help. Speak to professionals and seek psychological health interventions – we have seen huge demand for our EAP and health insurance solutions
  7. Learning techniques from CBT – combatting stress is a life skill and we should be teaching this to people from an early age. Discover how to recognise a situation that drives negative emotions and how those emotions drive negative behaviours to change the way you think

Above all, we need to recognise that stress is a physiological response and we need to manage every aspect of our whole health to help improve our stress-levels. It’s not just our work lives that impact our stress and as a society, we need to help people focus on improving every aspect of their whole health. Whether that’s by improving the quality of our relationships, finances, working conditions or social lives – all of which have been changed beyond recognition since before the pandemic.”



This article was first published in Cover Magazine.