Western Mail Health Column: The Impact of Stress by Angela Burns AM

Angela Burns AM, Welsh Conservatives Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health:

Stress affects us all differently, but with three in four of us feeling like we cannot cope with the consequences of stress, should we begin to view it as a public health issue? 

Last week was Mental Health Awareness week and the focus this year was exploring the impact of stress on our daily lives. 

Stress in itself is not a mental health condition. In fact, sometimes it is not an entirely bad thing! Without our ability to feel stress we may not be where we are today. That physical response within all of us that alerts us to danger – triggering our “fight or flight” response – has helped humans survive dangerous situations since the dawn of evolution.

We can all relate to a time when we have felt stressed – perhaps feeling under pressure at work, or when a loved one was ill, or worrying about our finances. It’s not easy to pin down what made us feel stressed, but I’m sure it’s a feeling all of us can recall – that feeling of abnormal pressure, where you can’t quite control what is going on around you.

Many of us accept that stress can be a part of our daily lives. We can often bounce back quite easily from a stressful encounter without any lasting negative impacts on our health.  But what happens when we are exposed to long term stress? Are we fully aware of just how much this affects us? 

Long term exposure to stress can affect our sleep patterns and mood, but if left unmanaged is known to be linked to higher blood pressure, can disrupt our immune system and can increase our likelihood of developing chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. But it takes its toll on our mental health too, opening the door to conditions such as anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

The Mental Health Foundation’s recent survey on the prevalence of stress amongst the UK population demonstrated this delicate link between long term exposure to stress and poor mental health. One of the largest surveys of its kind, its findings were staggering. 

Having asked more than 4,600 UK adults, it found that three out of four have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope with stress at some point in the last year. They found that 51% of those who had felt stressed reported feeling depressed and 61% had felt anxious, 16% had self-harmed and 32% had had suicidal thoughts and feelings.

The impact stress has on us as a society should not be understated. Stress and other mental health problems are the fourth most common reasons for workplace absence, with each person losing an average of 23.9 working days to work related stress. In Wales alone, our NHS staff lose 300,000 working days each year to stress related illnesses, and aside from these figures there will be many incidences where stress goes unreported. We lose billions of pounds each year because our stress related conditions make us less productive, less effective or we are off sick. 

We are in a transitional age where we are becoming more vocal about our feelings and being bolder than before in discussing our vulnerabilities - which can only be a good thing in regards to reducing stigma – but do we feel like we are supported or taken seriously when we speak out about our stress? 

The UK Conservative Government are leading the way in addressing this, having recently undertaken an independent review into how employers can better support the mental health of their employees. This will go some way to tackle work related stress, but we must start sooner. 

For our younger generations, Welsh education must focus on developing emotionally resilient and robust children who will be better able to handle the stresses and demands of the future.

It is in all of our interests to tackle the impacts of stress, which is why I want to see it regarded as a public health issue. This would put greater compunction on all of us to minimise the impact of stress not just in our own lives, but on others too. 

By tackling stress, we can go a long way to tackle mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and, in some instances, self-harm and suicide. But by doing so, we can become more supportive of one another, build our emotional resilience and show a long term commitment to reducing its prevalence.