Stress that is short-lived can be beneficial in that it serves to focus our attention on important matters. However, when stress becomes ongoing and chronic, it can cause immense problems for the sufferer and may end up in depression. It can adversely affect our performance at work and elsewhere, and it can lead to a host of physical ailments, including cancer and heart disease, as it degrades our immune system and stresses our bodily functions. It can also provoke other psychological side-effects such as substance abuse.
Stress can be caused by a huge variety of incidents, both personal and professional. In most cases, though, it is the result of the difference between what we would like to happen in our lives, and what is really happening, or what we believe is happening.
How Chronic Stress affects us:
Stress causes the body to undergo certain reactions: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. It is not just “in the mind”; it causes genuine physical reactions, including the release of epinephrine, or adrenaline, which is our “fight or flight” hormone. It also triggers the release of glucocorticoid cortisol, or hydrocortisone, which has anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant effects. Excessive levels of this can retard growth and healing, and increase the chance of infection. Chronic symptoms lead to anxiety, hopelessness and then depression.
Psychological problems often lead to pain, which research shows can be worse than that caused by strenuous physical activity or repetitive motion. Low-back pain and headaches are particularly common, and persistent pain only exacerbates the psychological problems, such as trouble sleeping. A vicious cycle soon emerges where the stress fuels the physical which fuels the stress and so on.
Stress is a highly personal experience, dependent on our coping mechanisms and predisposition to emotional fatigue. Some people, for example, are able to release stress by venting their aggression verbally or physically, but this is only a temporary fix. Gender also has an effect on stress levels in terms of the types of trigger that affect the person. Women tend to be affected more by interpersonal problems, and illness in others, whereas men are more prone to work-related stress.
Work is a major cause of stress, and is especially prevalent since the economic crisis took hold. The risk of high blood pressure and heart disease is just one of the effects. Research has demonstrated, however, that it is often our perception of the demands placed on us that affects us more than the reality of the situation. In other words, our attitude is key. If we can control our reactions, we can reduce our stress levels and the physical effects of stress. For example, stressed individuals who react angrily at work have markedly higher levels of morning cortisol and are prone to higher blood pressure.
With stress being so potentially damaging to our mental and physical health, our goal must be to find ways to ease the stress however we can, and if we cannot remove the triggers, we have to change our reaction to those triggers.
For Your Health,
Dr. Scott Van Dam