How to Write About Stress
In the words of Bartok from Anastasia, ‘Stress. It’s a killer.’
And it actually is.
According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. And more than 75 percent of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
Chronic stress can affect your brain, suppress your thyroid, cause blood sugar imbalances, decrease bone density and muscle tissue, raise blood pressure, reduce your immunity and ability to heal, and increase fat deposits around your abdomen that are associated with heart attacks, strokes and elevated “bad” cholesterol.
Source: Miami Herald
Short-term stress can help us to achieve our goals and is the reason many of us work well under pressure.
Long-term stress, meanwhile, can affect our physical and mental health temporarily and permanently.
Let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
Physical symptoms of stress
Let’s start with a well-known physical symptom of stress: headaches.
You’ve probably heard someone say that they’ve got a stress headache before.
Headaches caused by stress can come in the form of tension headaches or full-on migraines.
It can also cause eye strain.
Random aches and pains
Because your muscles are so tense (and you probably don’t realise it), random aches and pains are a sign of long-term stress.
When you’re stressed, moving isn’t always as simple as it sounds.
We can hold a lot of tension in our next and shoulders when we’re tense, and once those muscles seize up, it doesn’t take much for that to turn into a spasm or a full-on pulled muscle.
Even if it’s your neck muscles that are tense, this can cause a ripple effect into the chest or arms.
And the pain can be intense. So intense that it can make it difficult to move.
Stress can exacerbate digestive problems and even cause them.
It can trigger constipation or diarrhoea (sometimes both), as well as excess burping or flatulence.
Food allergies and intolerances can be exacerbated by stress, too.
When our body is drained—physically or mentally—our skin is the first organ to suffer.
Stress can therefore cause spots, full-on acne, eczema, psoriasis, and a plethora or other skin conditions.
Weak and brittle nails
Much like our skin, our nails suffer when we’re down, too.
Nails that break easily, peel, or have ridges on them are all signs that someone is run down physically and/or mentally.
Like our nails, our hair is also made of keratin. This means that when we’re stressed, they often suffer the same fate.
Hair becomes weak and brittle, and falls out in large chunks.
It also loses its volume and shine, and it takes some heavy-duty hair products to bring it back to life.
Hair loss can happen as much as six months after the period of stress is over, but in most cases, it will grow back eventually.
This is probably one of the lesser-known effects of stress, but can cause permanent damage to not only our teeth, but also our jaw alignment if we’re not careful.
Teeth grinding can happen in our sleep or when we’re awake when we’re stressed.
The more we grind our teeth, the more we erode our enamel away and cause our jaw to sit differently.
This can completely change the way our jaw sits and even the shape of our face.
It can also make our teeth more sensitive because the enamel is damaged.
It elevates cholesterol levels
The reasons for this aren’t known for sure—it could be because people who are stressed have worse diets, but it could also be because stress increases the body’s blood-glucose level.
For more information on cholesterol levels, visit Heart UK.
Stress is one of the many things that trigger asthma.
Even if the person hasn’t suffered from asthma since they were a child, a period of long-term stress can bring it back.
Dizziness and lightheadedness can also be caused by stress.
Psychological symptoms of stress
Stress, much like anxiety, causes a heightened sense of arousal. Sufferers will therefore feel:
- Easily agitated
- Constantly overwhelmed
They’ll also have difficulty sleeping and switching off/relaxing.
Sufferers may also self-medicate with alcohol, cigarettes, or other substances.
Consequences of long-term stress
The longer a period of stress lasts, the more likely it is to do serious damage.
These can include:
- Dental problems
- Stomach ulcers
- Heart attack
Short-term stress can also cause some of the consequences below if someone puts too much pressure on themselves, but the damage isn’t always as permanent.
There is no clear-cut way to deal with stress because there are so many symptoms and so many triggers.
Symptoms are likely to be dealt with by a GP on an individual basis. For example, they might prescribe antidepressants for depression or anxiety, and antacids for indigestion.
Exercise can help to deal with stress because it’s a way to channel the excess energy the person is suffering from.
Stress: it’s a killer
We don’t always realise how much damage stress has done to our body until it’s too late.
We can be so in denial about what’s wrong with us that we search for every other answer in existence before we realise that the pain we’re going through is caused by psychological triggers.
That doesn’t make them any less serious, though.
When writing about stress, remember that long-term stress can come back to hurt your character even when they think they’re free.
This is something to keep in mind if you’re working on a book or a series that spans a long period of time.
Over to You
Have you ever written a character that suffers from long-term stress? How did you approach it?
I’d love to hear about your approach in the comments!
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