Have you been experiencing stress that sometimes doesn’t seem to just go away? Do you worry that this could transform into a persistent health issue? We hope that you did not answer yes to these questions, but if you did, you are not alone. Changing lifestyles, work-environments and global changes in recent times, with one particular change that we keep hearing and talking about in every other medium, have led to an increasing number of people experiencing psychological issues such as excessive stress, alongside with clinical conditions such as anxiety, depression. Looking at some pre-covid statistics, we see that the numbers are already worrisome.
In the UK, 74% of people have at some point experienced extreme stress (OECD, 2014, Oken et al., 2015). Though onset of anxiety is mostly independent, a recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation reported that 61% individuals experiencing excessive stress develop anxiety sometimes leading to more severe anxiety disorders (OECD, 2014). Anxiety has been listed as the most common mental illness in Europe in 2019, with 37.3 million people suffering with it (Liu et al., 2017). It is concerning that severe mental illnesses, which include anxiety, depression and other types of mental illnesses, reduce the lifespan of an individual by 10-20 years than the average (Coldefy & Gandré, 2018; Liu et al., 2017; OECD, 2014).
Excessive stress negatively impacts the human body, resulting in changes that affect the individual's day to day activities. Increased heart rate, dilation of blood vessels, increased breathing and sweat production, lowered metabolism, and tensed muscles are some immediate changes seen with onset of stress.
With chronic exposure to excessive stress, these stress-related factors severely affects the person's ability to think, perceive, assimilate and efficiently execute any task in a day to day life (D’Amico et al., 2020, Juster et al., 2010, Marin et al., 2011). A recent report on people experiencing stress suggests that 77% of people experience impact on physical health and 73% on their mental health (American Psychological Association, 2017).If not managed, chronic and excessive stress may lead to anxiety which can further contribute to the distressing and debilitating impact on the quality of life of an individual and potentially lead further into depression and suicidal thoughts (Rosiek et al., 2016).
The workplace is a significant contributor of our stress. The campaign launched in the EU (endstress.eu) to tackle stress within the European Commission states that more than half of European workers feel stress is common in their daily work, and is the cause of as much as 60% of the days lost in the workplace.
In total, the OECD reports that in 2015, the overall costs related to mental ill exceeded around 4% of GDP across the 28 EU countries, and a significant portion of this is attributed to losses in the workplace: around EUR 240 billion (1.6% of GDP) is lost in the markets due to the impact of stress and other mental illnesses that reduce productivity as well as overall employment rates (OECD, 2018). This is in line with studies that show that psychological well-being is the biggest contributor of our productivity, thus the prevalence of mental health problems affects our work as well as the other aspects of our life (Donald et al., 2005). Studies as well as the British Academy report “Stress at Work” show that besides this effect in our productivity, work stress can alone lead to physical illness as well as mental illnesses (Eskelinen et al., 1991, Nieuwenhuijsen et al., 2010, Tarani Chandola, 2010).
The prevalence of mental health issues, and their impact in our socioeconomic wellbeing is evident, but access to targeted care is not so. WHO reports that outpatient facilities for mental health are available on average 1.63 per 100 000 population, from more than 10 in Czechia and the Baltic countries to <1 in several countries in the European region. WHO similarly reports that in Europe, there are on average 50 mental health care workers, which comprise psychiatrists, psychologists as well as social workers, available per 100 000 population. The number of psychiatrists available varies from 48 per 100 000 population ranges in Norway to 7 in Bulgaria, and nurses on average are 23.5 per 100000 population, more than twice the median rate of psychiatrists (WHO, 2019).We can only imagine these capacities to be reduced much more, with inversely even more people experiencing stress, in these concerning times. Recent WHO survey reports major disruption in these available mental health services in the last year, calling countries to immediate action (COVID-19 Disrupting Mental Health Services in Most Countries, WHO Survey, n.d.). Experts worry that the mental health issues that are on the emergence due to isolation, work loss and many other detriments could stay persistent even after the pandemic. (Savage, BBC)
The quick summary we presented shows that stress is a widespread issue in our society, and when it is not handled properly impacts the quality of our life in substantial ways. To fully understand the far reaching consequences of excessive stress, in this blog post series we will focus on differentiating a normal stress response from a chronic one, and turn our focus to two systems; our immune systems and cognitive capacity, which chronic stress has deleterious effects on.