By: Robert Melick
Merriam Webster defines stress as “a state of mental tension or worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.” They also define it as “something that causes strong feeling of worry or anxiety.” Stress is something that is difficult to measure in scientific studies. You cannot simply look at someone and judge the amount of stress they have based on their lifestyle; perceived stress is what counts. Two people may have identical amounts of stress, but one may cope with it much better than the other.
It has long been proposed in the psychological community that stress can cause or make disease worse. People claimed it caused ulcers and depression. Few scientific studies examined this issue. Stress becomes a major problem when it is chronic stress, stress that someone feels a majority of the time because of a job, family problems, taking care of someone sick, or various other issues. This chronic stress is believed to cause permanent problems in physiological, behavioral and emotional responses that negatively influence susceptibility and progression of disease (1).
The Effect of Stress on the Body
One of the major problems with stress is that it releases a nasty steroid hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is believed to influence a variety of physiological processes in the body including: metabolism of fats, protein and carbohydrates, increase blood sugar and suppresses the immune system (Wikipedia). Also released are chemicals called catecholamines, which include adrenaline (1).
Catecholamines (like adrenaline) prepare the body for something called the “fight or flight reflex,” an evolutionary adaptation that kicks in when you are in danger- it causes an increase in adrenaline which in turn increase the heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels (Wikipedia). One can easily see how having an increased heart rate, blood pressure and blood glucose levels all of the time will harm the body long term.
This reaction benefited our ancestors when they were faced with some immediate danger like a hungry lion, but when this state is constantly activated it can interfere with control of other physiological systems making someone more at risk for psychiatric and physical disorders (1).
Scientific Studies Showing Stress Increases Disease Risk
Psychological stress has been shown to increase disease risk, especially heart disease (1). As stress negatively influences anti inflammatory and immune processes, it can potentially influence depression, certain cancers, and autoimmune, infectious and coronary artery disease (1). About 20-25% of people who go through major stressful events develop depression (1). Laboratory experiments in humans have showed that stress can aid in the development of pathogenic processes like heart ischemia (define) and activate inflammatory mechanisms (1).
One analysis showed a 50% increase in cardiovascular disease risk associated with high amounts of stress at work, inadequate compensation and organizational injustice (1). The progression from HIV to aids in individuals also appears to be heavily influenced by stress (1). Among men with HIV, the risk of advancing to AIDS was increased by 50% for each additional moderately severe event (1). The evidence linking stress to cancer has been mixed (1). This may be because many studies lump all cancer types together, although they each have distinct causes and progressions (1).
Studies have shown a link between posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic stress exposures to conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome (2). Stress has been shown to aggravate auto immune disorders, especially rheumatoid arthritis, with stress management showing some symptom relief (2).
Science has proven what many have thought for so long- stress kills. People must take steps to keep their daily stress to a minimum. If you hate your job try to find a new one. We nearly spend more time at work than we do at home, so you have to enjoy your job. From personal experience I would recommend meditation. We live at such a fast pace in this society, it helps to sit down and meditate for at least 10 minutes a day. Or you can try yoga if meditation is not your thing.
1. Cohen, S., D. Janicki-Deverts, and G. E. Miller. “Psychological Stress and Disease.” JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association298.14 (2007): 1685-687. Web
2. Stojanovich, Ljudmila, and Dragomir Marisavljevich. “Stress as a Trigger of Autoimmune Disease.” Autoimmunity Reviews 7.3 (2008): 209-13. Web.