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What is stress doing to your body?

I have all the hallmarks of stress: Dry mouth, pounding heart and my knees are literally trembling.

I’m taking to the stage for my first ever live stand-up comedy routine. Not by choice, mind. It was a scheme dreamt up by the producers of ITV's Tonight, to really stress out the presenter of the programme.

And it worked. The hours leading up to the gig were as nerve-wracking as any I have experienced. In the end, I managed to extract just one laugh from the patient audience.

595k
New/long-standing stress, depression and anxiety cases amongst UK workers in 2017/18 (Source: HSE)
Science Editor Tom Clarke performs a stand-up comedy gig to test his stress levels. Credit: ITV Tonight

But given what I learned in the making of our documentary, stress really is no laughing matter.

According to a Mental Health Foundation survey, 74% of people reported feeling so stressed in the past year that they were unable to cope.

Leading causes of stress include worry about the health or well-being of family, money troubles or the pressure to succeed at work.

To get to grips with the everyday stress we all experience, we teamed up with three amazing volunteers. Each had too much stress in their lives.

15.4m
Working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2017/18 (Source: HSE)

Kate is a busy mum-of-two with a part time job as an operations assistant. Her stress has been recently exacerbated by a family bereavement, a complicated pregnancy and a house move.

"I’m just the average person, really. I didn’t realise this stress was having an effect on me," she said.

Work was the main source of stress for Abi, an office manager from Rotherham. She suffers from anxiety and finds it hard to unwind.

And Lee, a manager from Middlesbrough, has been so stressed he’s developed a serious eye condition which he fears could lead to blindness. As well as work stress, he helps care for his partner’s elderly father.

Our stress expert, Dr Rangan Chatterjee, assessed their stress levels using heart rate monitors.

"We sort of imagine stress is up here in our brains, but we don’t realise that stress has a physical impact on many organ systems in the body," he told us.

85%
of UK adults are experiencing stress regularly (Source: Forth)
Our stress expert, Dr Rangan Chatterjee gave the volunteers tips in order to help reduce their stress. Credit: ITV News

Stress is becoming an epidemic. Chronic stress increases our risk of life threatening illnesses like heart disease, strokes, diabetes and obesity.

It can lead to mental illness such as anxiety and depression as well as disturbed sleep, problem eating, or excessive drinking.

Our tests revealed all had too much stress in their days, and too little "recovery time" from their stress. Including quality sleep.

Some interventions were simple – at least in principle. Lee was asked to cut his 10-cup a day coffee habit to two, and avoid drinking alcohol during the week, to improve his sleep patterns.

Lee was also advised to take up running - as well as to cut his 10-cup a day coffee habit to two. Credit: ITV News

Kate was asked to get up just 10 minutes earlier each day to give her a just a small stress-free window before getting her kids ready for school.

Stress recovery can also be improved by exercise. So each participant was given a routine.

For Abi, kickboxing for a physical workout, but also to punch away some of her stress. Kate, a 5-minute “kitchen workout” to fit in with her daily routine.

And for Lee, community running outdoors.

And along the way, we all learned a few things we didn’t know about stress. Just taking a few slow deep breaths can instantly take our body out of its "stress state".

For Abi, boxercise proved not only to be a great work out but it also allowed her to punch away her stress. Credit: ITV News

While a few drinks can help us unwind and feel less stressed, alcohol can actually prevent us getting the quality sleep we need to recover from a stressful day.

And research has shown that simply reframing what many of us would call "stress" as excitement can actually help us to perform better.

To find out if my stress helped me become a better comic (spoiler alert: it didn’t) and how our volunteers got on, tune into Tonight on ITV at 7.30pm on Thursday.

Dr Chatterjee's top five stress-reducing tips:

Stress expert, Dr Rangan Chatterjee revealed his best stress-reducing tips. Credit: ITV News
  • Have phone free time every morning: Even just ten minutes will really help lower your stress levels and those effects will be long lasting throughout the day
  • Get a daily dose of nature: We know that simply looking at nature and being in nature helps us lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Have a tech free lunch break: Just 10 or 15 minutes at lunchtime, outside without technology will help lower your stress levels and you'll be more productive in the afternoon.
  • Do something you love every day: A daily dose of pleasure helps us to unwind and makes us more resilient to stress.
  • Do some form of physical activity every day: Exercise produces endorphins which improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress