In our latest Health Matters column, Lucy Dunn examines the causes, and solutions, of stress.

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December can be full of excitement as Christmas nears, but it can also be a stressful time of year.

Whether financial, emotional or work-related, stress can be a frequent and unwelcome festive visitor.

Stress is a natural process; a method of self-protection against perceived dangers. The stress response dates back to when our hunter-gatherer ancestors would come face-to-face with carnivorous animals in the wild, and their bodies would kick into survival mode.

The brain functions like a military operation: one part sends distress signals to its control centre, to stimulate a branch of our nervous system – the fight-or-flight response.

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A gland in our abdomen releases adrenaline, which affects our organs. The heart beats faster; our breathing rate increases; our senses focus better.

Adrenaline also causes the release of sugar and fat into the blood. All this happens before our minds have time to consciously process the threat(1).

Today’s troubles are less of meeting wild bears and more of regular stressors like intense workloads and money problems(2). Moderate stress can help our focus, but if the stress response is over-used or disproportional, then its negative effects will multiply.

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Regular, low-level stress can become chronic. The intimate relationship between mind and body that results challenges Cartesian duality(3).

Continual activation of the stress response can, for example, damage the heart, raising blood pressure, whilst also causing digestive issues, due to the delicate interplay between brain and gut.

To reduce chronic stress, first identify the ‘tipping-point’(4) where stress becomes unhealthy and then source the root of the problem.

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It sounds easier said than done, but by writing down your anxieties to declutter your mind, or talking to a friend or even your doctor, clarity can be found.

Regular exercise decreases stress levels, and meditation and mindfulness are being increasingly advocated by health professionals to avoid ‘burnout’(5).

Shifting your priorities to focus on what makes you happy, and cutting the time you dedicate to things that don’t is important.

People underestimate the power of self-reflection in the changing of their ways, but the solution often lies with ourselves.

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