Stress – The Gateway Drug To Mental Health Problems

You’ve heard the saying that marijuana is the gateway drug? That if you take it, you may be more likely to go on to other, harder drugs? It’s a bit of a nonsense saying, and now we have a lot more information we know that it isn’t 100% true. But the concept is interesting. Can exposure to one thing make you more susceptible to other, similar things?

For example, stress. Stress is often the first sign that something is wrong, and it’s present in almost every single mental health condition there is. And while it is something we all experience every once in a while, does chronic stress make you more likely to develop other mental health conditions as a result?

What Is Stress?

If we asked you to remember the last time you were stressed, you would probably remember it vividly. It’s the feeling of being out of control, of struggling to cope with everything going on, or that you are weighed down by something going on in your life. And all of those feelings are triggered by your brain. Stress is the body’s natural response to the demands of daily life, mental, emotional, or physical pressure, whether it’s real or perceived. You might have a deadline looming, a presentation to give, a difficult conversation to have or need to do a task you really don’t enjoy. These feelings cause distinct chemical changes in your body, sending adrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline coursing through you, and can lead to feelings of frustration, anger, anxiety or depression.

But did you know there are 3 types of stress, and each one looks and feels different?

Acute: Everyone goes through acute episodes of stress in their life, and in short bursts stress can be helpful. It can help you focus and manage your emotions until the situation is resolved.

Episodic Acute: These are similar to acute episodes, but they happen more frequently, or they happen without an obvious trigger. It feels like you’re always under pressure and things are always going wrong, which can be mentally and physically exhausting.

Chronic: Ongoing stress, usually as the result of long-term emotional pressure. For example, a stressful job, unhappy family situations or money problems. If you suffer from chronic stress, your body experiences the fight or flight response too frequently to recover between episodes. So, your nervous system is constantly aroused, which isn’t good for your physical or mental health.


The Long-Term Impact Of Stress

Around 33% of people report experiencing chronic or extreme stress, and that number has only gone up in the last 2 years with the pandemic piling the stress on everyone. But stress isn’t meant to be prolonged. Our bodies are designed to produce this stress response as a way to get us out of a dangerous situation. So when we can’t get out of the situation, the stress response keeps repeating. This leads to an overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones, which throws your whole body into disarray and disrupts a lot of natural processes.

In the long term, this make you more vulnerable to:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Catching colds and other common bugs more often
  • Muscle tension and unexplained pain
  • Heart disease
  • Heart attack
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration problems

So as you can see, being chronically stressed can put you at significantly higher risk of developing both physical and mental health problems. Which makes stress management all the more important.

Are We Addicted To Stress?

The big problem we all face is, we may be addicted to stress. Have you ever talked with a friend who is stressed about something yet again, and wonder why they put themselves in that position? They might not be able to help it! You see, along with releasing cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline to help us cope with the stressful event, our brains also release dopamine during a stressful episode. This is the ‘feel good’ chemical that activates the reward centre of our brains, and encourages us to repeat the behaviour to get that good feeling again. Dopamine is talked about a lot when it comes to substance addiction, but it also plays a significant role in our heightened stress levels. So if you’re someone who feels like you thrive on stress, you may well be addicted to stress.

This makes reducing your overall stress levels even more difficult, since you’re fighting against not only your external circumstances, but your internal brain chemistry. It’s something e can’t avoid, so recovery from stress addiction isn’t really possible. All you can do is learn to recognise your triggers and train your brain to balance out your stress hormones with techniques like deep breathing, guided mediation, massage and more.

The good news is, stress is completely normal, and everyone experiences it at one point or another. But that doesn’t mean you have to live with it all the time. At The Holistic Healthcare Group, we work with people who are stressed and need support, either through in-person therapies or our mental health app MELP. We can walk you through techniques that have been proven to not only help you recognise your own stress signals, but to manage your responses and help you feel happier and healthier in yourself. We will help you develop the right tools and techniques to build your own mental health toolkit, and prevent those feelings of stress and overwhelm from taking over your life.