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How stress affects your sex drive, sleep, skin, digestion and mood – plus what to do about it

“Stress is the body’s response to an unfavourable situation,” was what Coventry-based Ayurvedic practitioner, Kewal Singh Talwadia, told me when I asked how he’d define stress.

It’s primarily a physical response when our body switches to ‘fight or flight’ mode, releasing a complex mix of hormones and chemicals to prepare the body for action. Humans wouldn’t survive without stress and this innate system, but too much stress will weaken the entire body.

From my experience, stress can either be obvious or insidious.

There are times I can feel I’ve been partly holding my breath for hours, especially when I’ve got lots on my to-do list or I anticipate drama of some kind. Brief heart palpitations often take my breath away and make me cough as my heart skips beats. Painful tension will build in my shoulders. In those moments, I can clearly tell I’m stressed.

A black woman with green locs and a white top sat outside of a cafe looking sad with her hand on her head
A woman looking worried. Source: Kory Williams/ Unsplash

However, I often lay awake for hours at night, even when I’m not thinking about anything. My bitchy mood can be be akin to a hormonal teenager and for several months, I’ve not had much appetite. But when people have asked me: “Are you stressed?” My answer tends to be: “Nah, not really.”

USING ESSENTIAL OILS TO COMBAT STRESS AND ANXIETY

“Sometimes you can be in a stressful situation for so long you don’t recognise it’s stressful anymore because in some way, you’ve adapted and this is just life. There’s been a gradual descent into a pit of stress,” counsellor Charlotte Gutu explained.

Charlotte founded her private counselling practice, Fifty Minutes, in 2018. She predominantly works with people in their 20s and 30s and wants to change the perception of therapy.

“To overcome stress, you have to recognise what your individual signs of stress are and be able to identify what the dis-ease and discomfort feels like. Is it in the body? Is it emotional so you feel that something’s off?

“Once you can pinpoint something and understand it, it then gives you the power to change it. There’s no one step to overcoming stress.”

From causing sensitive skin to screwing with our sex drive, stress can present itself in lots of different ways. With that in mind, I asked several experts across the UK – exactly how does stress affect our body and what can we do about it? You’ll be pleased to know there are solutions so scroll down to your biggest body concern.

Stress and skin

Dija Ayodele, founder of West Room Aesthetics and the Black Skin Directory

A portrait of Diya Ayodele who is a black lady with dark shoulder-length hair, wearing a pink pattern blouse with jewellery and is sat on a pink office chair
Dija Ayodele

An increase in hormones cortisol and adrenaline can “trigger or worsen inflammatory conditions we may already have like acne or eczema. Skin may become oilier or appear dry and lacklustre,” Dija said, who has been an aesthetician for more than ten years.

“Stressed skin is generally poor-performing skin where the skin cells are de-optimised hence skin looks tired, grey and lacklustre. Skin is then more prone to issues like reoccurring rashes and spots, again because the skin barrier function is compromised so it’s easy for inflammation to set in.

“You may also find your skin is more sensitive and reactive to products.”

How can we tell the difference between a stress-related skin flare-up and regular hormonal acne?

“Conditions like acne can be controlled and you see an improvement in the skin over time. With stress unless the trigger is removed then there’s no let up.”

“It’s really important to control your stress triggers but to also accept a certain level of stress is part and parcel of modern life. There will always be periods which are more stressful than others.”

To get you and your skin back to optimal health, Dija advised to:

  • Have a stress outlet e.g. yoga, exercise, painting, drawing, reading, or see a therapist/ counsellor
  • Visit a professional for your skincare
  • Don’t overcomplicate your skincare. The temptation is always to start using many different lotions and potions but keeping things as simple as possible is key.

West Room Aesthetics is a boutique skincare space, specialising in skin of colour. Dija also founded the award-winning Black Skin Directory which connects people of colour to skincare experts and products targeted to the unique demands of darker skin. Email Dija at skinhealth@westroomaesthetics.com.

Stress and sex drive (or libido)

Charlene Douglas, the ‘Intimacy Coach UK’ and resident counsellor on E4’s Sex Clinic

A photo of Charlene Douglas, a black lady with bright red locs, smiling at the camera and writing on a clipboard with note paper
Charlene Douglas

“Stress flushes the body with the stress hormones – cortisol and adrenaline – these have the opposite effect in the body than what’s required for sexual excitement,” Charlene began. “Instead of your body being excited because it’s preparing for sex, it becomes flushed with stress hormones which switches off the ability to become excited and experience sexual arousal.

“A person may notice they’re not becoming sexually stimulated by the touch of their partner’s hands, or the flash of sexual lingerie perhaps. This might be because a person may require other forms of stimulation. You must ask yourself: ‘Am I having the kind of sex I really enjoy? Perhaps you may want to introduce role play, a different environment, consensual BDSM [Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism], porn or so on. Perhaps vanilla sex is boring for you and you need more spice.”

Your sexual needs not being met and therefore, the initiation of sex being more stressful than exciting is just one reason for a loss of libido.

There are plenty more:

  • Not finding your partner sexually stimulating
  • Body image insecurities
  • Pressure from unrealistic expectations, initiated by either you or your partner
  • Not feeling respected or listened to in or outside of the bedroom
  • Feeling stressed in other areas of your life

So how can you get your sex drive back? Contact your GP in the first instance – “There may be a medical cause that can be easily resolved with medication,” Charlene said.

“Once all is okay medically, the key is to identify the root cause of the stress and work on resolving this. It could be negative feelings about the way we look, holding onto past conversations with an ex or not feeling desirable by your preferred sex.

“Oftentimes counselling or coaching can help us to identify what’s causing the stress and create helpful strategies to minimise it. It can also be helpful to write down all the things worrying you at present. This can relate to sex and relationships, work, family, children, money, how you view yourself and your abilities etc. Usually the cause of the loss of libido is wrapped up somewhere in your list.”

For couples, communication is key if sex drive is becoming an issue for either person in the relationship.

“Sometimes couples have been together for many years and have never spoken about sexual preferences. I’ve asked individuals in front of their partners what they do and don’t like sexually and often there are some surprised faces in the room. That special sex trick may not be having the impact you thought it would have – in fact it may be the very reason your partner avoids sex.”

A woman's two fingers suggestively fondling the centre of a yellow rose which represents a woman's vagina
Source: Diana Caballero/ Malvestida magazine

Stress and intimacy

Intimacy isn’t confined to sexual relationships so when we’re feeling stressed, it affects our ability to relate to ourselves and the world around us. Intimacy is often described as ‘in-to-me-see’ and is a definition psychodynamic counsellor Charlene agrees with.

“People often associate intimacy with being sexual with another person. Of course this is part of it, but for me, it’s also about understanding one’s own vulnerabilities and being able to be your authentic self.

“We can experience an intimate connection in many non-sexual ways. Have you ever meditated? Sat in a park among the birds and trees? Had a deep conversation with a friend sharing life experiences perhaps? A connection takes place like no other – this is intimacy!

“In a sexual relationship we experience true intimacy when we can really let go – when it feels safe enough for us to do so. When we feel totally emotionally, physically and sexually safe, our bodies can become aroused and we can have real enjoyment.”

Charlene qualified as a life coach in 2014 and became a psychodynamic counsellor shortly after. Then she became fascinated by intimacy. Learn more at theintimacycoachuk.com or email charlene@theintimacycoachuk.com.

Stress and sleep

Dr Alanna Hare, consultant doctor specialising in sleep medicine and secretary of the British Sleep Society

A headshot of Dr Alanna Hare, a white lady with bob length blonde hair and green eyes wearing a black dress and a decorative necklace
Dr Alanna Hare

A “good night’s sleep” is different for us all, but Dr Hare explained the focus should be how you feel once you wake up.

“Are you refreshed? Do you have enough energy to get through the day? Feeling tired at the end of a long day is perfectly normal – we all have busy lives – but you should be able to fall asleep, on average, within about 20 minutes and shouldn’t be awake for long periods in the night.

“Waking at night briefly and occasionally is normal.”

The science of how stress affects sleep

“To fall asleep, we need to be both psychologically and physically prepared for sleep. Stress leads to the release of a number of hormones from the adrenal gland, including cortisol. Cortisol is key to regulating our sleep/wake schedule; stimulating wakefulness in the morning and continuing to support alertness throughout the day while gradually dropping to allow the body’s own internal sleep drive and other hormones – including adenosine and melatonin – to rise, and help bring about sleep.

“Persistently elevated cortisol levels lead to a state of arousal, difficulty getting to sleep and poor quality, restless sleep. Chronic restricted sleep and other forms of sleep disturbance can also lead to elevated cortisol levels, so this can become a vicious cycle.”

The immediate effects of a poor night’s sleep can affect both our personal relationships and performance at work, Dr Hare said.

They include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Emotional lability (uncontrollable laughing, crying or anger, often at inappropriate times)
  • Reduced creativity and ability to solve problems
  • Reduced empathy

“If you’re stressed, you enter a kind of ‘fight or flight’ mode and in this mode, stable and restful sleep can be difficult to achieve as your brain is on the look out for threats and danger. This can result in reduced deep sleep – the restorative sleep which leaves you feeling refreshed in the morning.

“You may struggle to get to sleep, wake more frequently during the night, and awaken earlier than you want in the morning. You may feel fatigued and commonly, young people report the sense of being “tired but wired” so they’re exhausted but unable to get good quality, restful sleep.”

A head and shoulders shot of a white woman in bed with her mousy brown hair covering her face
A woman in bed. Source: Kinga Cichewicz/ Unsplash

DO YOU WORRY ABOUT GETTING THE PERFECT SLEEP? IT COULD BE ORTHOSOMNIA

Dr Hare has been a doctor for 20 years. Her advice to combat stress-related sleep issues start with mindfulness.

“There’s lots of clinical evidence for this for both anxiety and stress, and for sleep. The Headspace app is a good place to start. Regular exercise is also beneficial. A daily walk in the fresh air can be enough or a gym/yoga class or running, if you enjoy those things.

“For insomnia, the Sleepio website is excellent as well as Sleepful and Sleep Station. If the stress is overwhelming and you’re struggling to cope, do see your GP as well.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown us all into a period of intense change where we’ve had to adapt our everyday routines or are struggling to maintain them. Living and working from home can mean we’re: spending more time exposed to the blue light being emitted from our electronic devices, which disrupt the signals in our brain telling our body it’s time to sleep; working later or for longer periods; and spending less time doing activities which would help tire us out.

You might have heard the phrase ‘sleep hygiene’ – a list of practices to help your brain switch off so you get the best sleep possible? Well, these are Dr Hare’s expert tips for optimum sleep.

Stress and mental clarity

Charlotte Gutu, counsellor at Fifty Minutes in Sheffield

A photo of Charlotte Gutu, a young mixed-race lady with freckles and big black wavy hair. She is wearing an oversized blue shirty and cargo pants sat on an office chair next to a plant
Charlotte Gutu

“Stress does prompt people to see me but I’ve noticed, not everybody names what they’re experiencing as ‘stress’. What they’d describe is more of a discomfort and knowing something isn’t right in their lives, and a general unease.

“People can know they feel stressed or it’s less obvious.

“Brain fog is a big symptom of stress. I’ve seen people where it felt obvious that stress was a problem because they literally couldn’t find the words to say to me – they kept stopping and starting. I just sat with them for some time in silence. It was like they needed permission to just breathe and be still.”

A photo of a desktop computer, a laptop and another small device with the same screensaver saying "Breathe" in pink neon lights against a background of green plants
And breathe. Source: Sanni Sahil/ Unsplash

Sleeping too much or not being able to sleep is a common complaint Charlotte has seen linked to stress, which is known to affect mental clarity, concentration and mood. Equally, anxiety can be triggered, or worsened, by stress.

“This period of lockdown is retriggering for some people. Being in the same environment for this long period of time is reminding some people of really difficult periods in their lives; making it easy to forget how far they’ve come since then and the coping skills they’ve developed.

“Some people are also struggling with motivation which leads to feelings of guilt. Of course, people need time to process what’s going on in the world right now and to make space for that without feeling lazy or not productive enough. Just sitting and staring into space is okay if that’s what’s needed.

“It can almost be intimidating to have all this free time and space. If you’re not doing 101 things, you can start to feel ashamed and that you must be doing something wrong. It then becomes a vicious cycle that will lead to feeling more stressed.”

Fifty Minutes is a flexible and judgement-free counselling service. Charlotte offers online video therapy and a free telephone consultation (as many therapists do) to help you both decide if she’d be the best counsellor for you. Email charlotte@fiftyminutes.co.uk.

Stress and the digestive system

Kewal Singh Talwadia, Ayurvedic practitioner and partner at a Drop in the Ocean health store in Coventry

A headshot of Kewal Singh Talwadia, an Asian male with light stubble, wearing a bright yellow turban
Kewal Singh Talwadia

“In Ayurveda, our digestive system is given the highest importance for a person’s health and wellbeing. ‘Agni’ describes a person’s digestive strength and when a person is under stress, their agni, or digestive fire, is compromised and not as strong as it should be. This results in weak and improper digestion, which leads to IBS [irritable bowel syndrome] symptoms as well as other digestive issues.

“When a person can’t digest food properly, the body doesn’t get the required nutrients from the food, resulting in ‘cravings’ for sugar and junk food as it gives instant pleasure and comfort. However, this is detrimental to health as it creates more digestive problems.

“So if we’re unable to cope with the stress, it has an unfavourable impact on our digestion and health and also leads to more complex eating disorders, which becomes a vicious circle of stress and comfort eating.”

What is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian health and wellbeing system designed for the prevention and treatment of any health conditions people may have. ‘Veda’ is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘knowledge’ or ‘science’ while ‘Ayur’ means ‘age’ or ‘life’. In Ayurveda, it’s believed we’re controlled by three life energies or doshas –  vata (ether and air), pitta (water and fire), kapha (water and earth) – which consist of the five elements and represent our physical processes, personality, and emotional traits.

“In Ayurvedic scriptures, stress is referred to as ‘Sahasa’. In the Sanskrit language ‘Sahas’ means facing danger or a challenge,” Kewal told me.

A circular diagram showing vita in the outer circle, pitta in the inner circle and kapha in the innermost circle
A vita, pitta and kapha diagram

“According to Ayurveda, stress causes a vata (air element) imbalance in the central nervous system. The negative effects of this imbalance can be seen in all parts of body, depending on each person’s circumstances, but the most common places you’ll see obvious effects of stress is our digestive system and immune system.

“This is evident in people presenting with stress-related symptoms like IBS, auto-immune conditions, lethargy, anxiety, inflammation and so on.”

As an Ayurvedic practitioner for more than 20 years, Kewal lives by the principles he has learnt from various scholars about how to manage stress. The most common teaching is that vata becomes the first dosha affected so the remedy is to adopt a vata-balancing approach to our diet and lifestyle, he said.

Kewal shared these tips to do just that…

The Ayurvedic way to eat:

  • Only eat and drink warm or hot foods.
  • Only eat when really hungry rather than when you fancy eating and try not to snack on food because it’s there. Chew each bite thoroughly and liquefy the food in your mouth before swallowing so chew at least 28 times.
  • Don’t eat when you’re angry, worried or stressed – try to calm down first. If you can’t do that, just have soup or a hot drink.
  • Eat nutritious and well-balanced foods.
  • Be mindful of the 80/20 split so 80 per cent of food is soft or liquid, and 20 per cent is solid.
  • Eat meals at least 5-6 hours apart. If you’re under stress, it’s best to eat only two meals per day and have soups or hot drinks in between.
  • Don’t drink cold or fizzy drinks with your food. Drink water or juice only after an hour of eating.

What to eat to boost your ‘agni’ or digestive fire:

  • Mung bean soup or stew is best for weak digestion or any digestive disorder. Mung beans are rich in nutrients but very easy on digestion.
  • Top herbs that can be taken safely: Long pepper (Piper longum), Tulsi (Indian holy basil), ginger, brahmi, haritaki, tiphala. I frequently use these herbs for vata-related disorders with great results. Visit vedicbliss.co.uk to buy a range of Ayurvedic herbs and formulations to suit all body types.

Ayurveda gives many holistic solutions to treat and avoid problems arising from stress. An Ayurvedic practitioner might be someone who can help you identify the root cause of your stress and implement positive Ayurvedic lifestyle changes while learning the philosophy of Ayurveda. To learn more, email Kewal at kewalonly@gmail.com or call 02476 225 273.

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