HOW STRESS AFFECTS OUR HEALTH
“Oh health! health! the blessing of the rich! the riches of the poor!
Who can buy thee at too dear a rate, since there is no enjoying this world without thee?”
Ben Jonson, Volpone
Stress affects our health in so many ways. Yet just how much depends on how we learn to deal with stress, as the following two case studies will show.
Here we have two women with similar backgrounds, dealing with stress in very different ways. Why does that happen? Why does stress cause some people to get sick, while providing others with the incentive to make major positive changes in their lives?
Obviously, some people have a higher tolerance for stress than others. The key to success in today’s changing world is learning to adapt successfully to the stresses you meet. Failure to do so will mean depression, sickness, loss of self-esteem and low achievement.
Psychologists say that people who withstand a lot of stress and stay healthy – even though they may have a family history of disease – feel in control of their lives, are committed to themselves and to others, and see stressful events as challenges, rather than insurmountable problems.
It seems, then, that there is a mind/body connection that comes into play here. Our health depends to a great degree not only on our physiological but also our psychological resistance to disease. There’s a new field of medicine that looks at this particular subject – why some of us become sick and others remain symptom-free. It’s called psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI.
PNI is based on the idea that the brain, endocrine and immune systems form an intricate communication network. They interact in ways that can make us sick or keep us well and, when we are sick, boost our chances of recovery.
Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland have suggested that when we feel helpless and out of control, our bodies send out chemical messengers which slow down the movement of white blood cells that fight disease.
It is increasingly clear that your ability to handle stress is the single most important asset you can have in fighting illness. Fear, anxiety, frustration, confusion and insecurity are beginning to be seen as the causes of more disease than bacteria and viruses.
Three-quarters of all complaints in the practice of general medicine are stress-related. Almost a quarter of prescriptions written by North American doctors are for tranquilizers, sleeping pills or anti-depressants. Unfortunately, there seems to be a growing acceptance that this is an unavoidable fact of modern life – that with our faster, more hectic pace with the inescapable technology of cell phones, text messaging, blackberries, webcam, emails, voice mail and more….can lead to tension headaches, ulcers, depression and general ill health.
PROLONGED STRESS AND DISEASE
Constant tension is linked to a number of diseases. The evidence clearly shows that prolonged stress – or the body’s constant readiness for action over a period of time – is an important part of the trigger that sets off many diseases.
When your blood pressure stays high for a long period, the blood vessels are constricted. This means it’s harder for the blood to flow through them. Also, chronic stress changes the chemistry of the blood, making it more likely to clot. All of this can result in a heart attack or stroke.
Stress can lead to digestive disorders such as constipation or diarrhea, duodenal and stomach ulcers, and colitis. The constant effort of the lungs to get more air can lead to problems for asthmatics. The skin changes associated with stress can cause allergies and rashes, and a continued state of tension may result in headaches, backaches and muscle pain.
Keep in mind that we’re talking about keeping the body in a state of readiness for a prolonged period of time. Momentary crises which are coped with quickly cause no problems, because the body returns to its normal state very rapidly.
Stress and your heart
If your heart starts beating harder and faster than usual, it means it has increased its output. Exercise can do this; so can stress. When we’re stressed, we may feel that nothing is going right, that we’re always racing around and accomplishing nothing. When this happens, the brain stimulates the sympathetic nervous system which causes your body to pump out adrenaline-like substances. These increase your heart rate, which leads to higher blood pressure.
Recent research has shown that emotional stress is a factor in the management of diabetes. A diabetic can follow his diet strictly, monitoring every dose of insulin or oral medication and yet still find that his system is “out of whack” thanks to an argument with his partner or pressure at the office.
In an experiment at Duke University Medical Center, a group of diabetics admitted to hospital with poor blood sugar control were put on medication and taught a technique called “progressive relaxation.” Starting with their toes and working their way up, they tensed and relaxed various muscles, learning to recognize and reduce muscle tension when they found it. After the training, they were better able to tolerate a dose of sugar than a similar group of patients who received medication but no relaxation training.
Researchers also introduced biofeedback into relaxation exercises for insulin-dependent diabetics. In these sessions, the patients were hooked up to electronic equipment that detected muscle tension, perspiration and temperature and let the patients know when they were relaxing properly. After a year of using these techniques whenever they were feeling tense, the patients had the same overall need for insulin. Relaxation, however, allowed them to keep their blood glucose swings under control.
Cancer and stress
There is some evidence that the stress of repressing emotions can lead to some kinds of cancers. A study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that the highest incidence of cancer in a group of male medical students was among the “Lone” cluster, a group of men who felt lonely and faced the world with bland, unemotional exteriors. They were 16 times more likely to develop cancer than were members of the “Acting Out/Emotional” cluster, people who were anxious, easily upset and prone to depression. According to the study, people with the highest cancer rates were likely to hide their real feelings, particularly negative ones.
Of course, there is still no real proof that people’s emotions affect their chances of getting cancer, or surviving it. But while the debate continues, one New Haven surgeon who is convinced there is a connection treats his patients with what he calls “a healthy dose of self-responsibility.” He suggests that we should be turning victims into fighters, teaching them to take care of their own needs.
When it comes to the idea of personal responsibility, the other side of the coin is that it can lead some patients to feel guilty about their disease, believing that they are somehow to blame because of some personal inadequacies. It can also direct them away from medical treatment to unproven, potentially harmful therapies. Remember: stress management is an aid to conventional medical treatment, not a deterrent.
Grief and Stress
Widows and widowers have much higher rates of sickness and death than their peers. One group of researchers found that intense grieving during the eight weeks following the death of a spouse lowered the immune responses of the bereaved persons, rendering them much more vulnerable to infection and cancer.
Does this mean you shouldn’t grieve for your loved ones? Of course not. It does mean, though, that you should realize that you are at a heightened health risk at times like these, and take measures to lessen that risk.
Years ago, the US National Institute of Mental Health built a veritable paradise for laboratory mice, stocked with every conceivable comfort and food. You would think the mice would have thrived under those conditions. The fact of the matter was, however, that the younger mice became listless and lethargic; reproductivity declined and the older rodent population showed increasing signs of stress. With no challenge, nothing to strive for, the mice soon lost their zest for life.
Human beings are no different. As Donald Norfolk has written in The Stress Factor, “A regular shot of adrenaline is also a wonderful cure for lethargy and boredom…we need the stimulus of occasional anxiety and fear to keep us alert and alive.”
The secret is to find your own optimum stress level, the point at which you are performing at peak efficiency. Beyond that level, performance deteriorates and harmful consequences of stress set in.