MEN'S HEALTH ∙ 4 minutes read

Stress and bereavement: ‘You shouldn’t underestimate the power stress has on the body'

By Kirsty Mason

Dr Luke Pratsides tells us that stress affects the body in many different ways. It’s a term that’s often tossed around flippantly, despite the serious physical and mental ways in which stress can manifest itself.

As part of our Numan Talks Series, we wanted to take a closer look at how stress can affect the body. We spoke to our lead GP, Dr Luke Pratsides and Efrem Brynin, who, after the devastating loss of his son, developed a number of physical health issues. 

“You shouldn’t underestimate the power stress has on the body.”

Dr Pratsides, who also works for the NHS in East London, has seen many patients suffering from the physical and mental strains of stress: “You can often get physical symptoms from stress. Chronic pain is very common, as well as stomach problems, diarrhoea, headaches, migraines, feeling nauseous or even vomiting. I sometimes see people with joint pain which mimics arthritis but after doing the investigations, everything comes back as normal. It becomes evident that stress may have something to do with it. Stress can also cause flare-ups of existing conditions, such as psoriasis or eczema. Some people are left completely immobile because they’re in so much pain, or they might have a migraine that causes them to have paralysis down one side of their body. We run all the tests - blood tests, x-rays, imaging - but it all comes back clear. You shouldn’t underestimate the power stress has on the body.”

For Efrem, co-founder of the charity, StrongMen, appearing on Channel 4’s SAS Who Dares Wins had some unexpected benefits: “We had just disembarked from the landing craft that scooped us out of the water, each having jumped from the bridge some 10-12 metres above. Trekking through the rainforest in Ecuador, I was keen to stay hydrated, but we’d had the chance to use the toilet before we left. I was ready.

“Next thing I know, we’re forced to perform extreme physical challenges in conditions that I’ve never experienced before. It’s brutal. Then completely out of nowhere, I pee myself. A few minutes later, it happens again. I thought my bladder was empty. Something wasn’t right.

“I sought the advice of the show’s doctor. If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today. This is what led to my diagnosis of prostate cancer.”

“I’m convinced that the stress of losing James had a knock-on effect.”

A few years before his diagnosis, Efrem tragically lost his son in Afghanistan while serving in the army. He believes the stress of the loss triggered a series of health issues: “After losing James, I suffered from a number of physical conditions, including gum disease. I was 44, had no genetic predispositions and was in a very low-risk group. All of a sudden, I was overrun with health issues. I’m convinced that the stress of losing James had a knock-on effect.”

“Stress can affect your immune system,” Dr Pratsides explains. “Sleep tends to be badly affected by stress. This can kick off a chain of negative events for your health. Poor sleep depreciates your ability to fight off infection, immunity levels are dampened and it’s much harder for your body to heal and repair.

“Also, if you’re stressed, your stomach might overproduce acid. This can go all the way up from your stomach into your teeth and gums which can cause all sorts of problems, such as mouth ulcers.

“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to fully understand how stress affects the body, but it seems likely that our inbuilt defence system (immunity) is dampened when we’re under severe stress, and this could compromise our body's ability to attack suspicious cells.”

“I’m one of those people that has always powered through. Grit my teeth. Put my head down. Get on with it. You can’t do that with bereavement.”

It’s a well-known concern that men are less likely to seek out mental and physical support when they need it. Efrem admits: “I’m one of those people that has always powered through. Grit my teeth. Put my head down. Get on with it. You can’t do that with bereavement.

“The period after my treatment was hard. I was finding the simplest things challenging. My body was already trying to deal with the sorrow of losing James, and now I needed to recover from the prostatectomy. 

“I pushed myself to go back to work too soon after we lost James. I did the same after the surgery. I hadn’t learnt my lesson. I knew the importance of exercise for physical and mental health but after the surgery, my physical progress was dire. I was regressing rather than progressing. It was incredibly frustrating.”

Dr Pratsides advises anyone who’s dealing with mental health issues brought on by bereavement, or any other form of extreme stress, to visit their GP imminently: “I always say to go as soon as you can. I think men, in particular, try to push through, allowing it to build up. There’s certainly more openness surrounding mental health than there used to be. GPs deal with stress, anxiety, low mood and depression all the time. We’ve acquired a solid amount of knowledge surrounding mental health and have the tools needed to treat it. I always push for talking therapy and psychological treatment to fix the root of the problem. For individuals who are really suffering and can’t engage, they might be offered medicine, but I’d always try and offer a combination of treatments. It’s a case of sitting with the patient and finding out what works for them. The support is always there for you.”

Efrem found that putting less pressure on himself and managing his expectations helped him with the bereavement and recovery of his operation: “Gradually, I learnt how to listen to my body and mind. I started using natural supplements such as ginseng and magnesium. I’m not sure if it was a placebo, but I don’t care. It helped me. 

“Although the consequences of losing James will never heal, I know how to manage my emotions. I can deal with it now.”

“Now, over 3 years later, my expectations have changed. I know when I need medication. I know when I can push myself, but equally, I know when to rest. I’m aware of what I’m eating and drinking, and when I’m exercising. I’m in a good place, both physically and mentally. Although the consequences of losing James will never heal, I know how to manage my emotions. I can deal with it now.”

“Seek help early. Help is there.”

“It’s important to be mindful of yourself. Don’t try and push through all the time,” Dr Pratsides advises. “Suffering in silence only builds up trauma until you reach breaking point. It’ll then take a long time to recover. If you seek help early, you’ll always reach a better outcome. So that’s my take-home message: Seek help early. Help is there.”

Efrem set up StrongMen with his friend, Dan Cross. For bereavement support, visit their website.