The statistics surrounding stress are staggering. The World Health Organization has called stress the “health epidemic of the 21st century.” An alarming 77 percent of us report regularly experiencing negative physical symptoms due to stress. Stress costs the U.S. economy $300 billion between missed work and related health care expenses. It’s estimated that 90 percent of all visits to primary health physicians are due to stress-related complaints. The evidence is crystal clear that too much stress is making us sick. But exactly what is stress and why has it become such a problem for our health and well-being?
What Is Stress?
Acute stress leads to a hardwired physiological response that helps you deal with emergencies. The stress response, often referred to as the “flight or fight response,” is a complicated cascade of physiological changes set in motion by a perceived danger.
During times of acute stress, breathing becomes faster to take in more oxygen. Heart rate quickens and blood pressure rises sending three to four times more blood than usual to the muscles, lungs, and brain. Blood flows away from the skin to reduce the possibility of blood loss from a wound. Digestion temporarily becomes a waste of energy, and shuts down. The immune system gets ready to fight a potential infection. The mouth gets dry as non-essential fluids are directed to more important organs.
Acute stress is short-lived and, in case of a life-threatening emergency, these automatic changes can save your life. In modern life, however, most of us rarely confront any real physical danger. Yet the stress response gets triggered over 50 times per day. When stress is experienced this often day after day, it becomes chronic stress.
Chronic stress results in the production of different stress hormones than acute stress. Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine are produced on an as needed basis during emergencies. They don’t hang around and dissipate as quickly as they are created. Cortisol, on the other hand, is a stress hormone that streams through your system all day long, and that’s what makes it so dangerous. It’s the excess cortisol produced by chronic stress that can turn against you and make you sick.
The Most Common Signs Of Stress
According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, these are the top ten most common signs of stress. The number in parentheses is the percentage of people polled who reported experiencing that symptom:
- fatigue (51 percent)
- irritability or anger (50 percent)
- nervousness (45 percent)
- lack of energy (45 percent)
- headache (44 percent)
- feel like crying (35 percent)
- digestive upset (34 percent)
- muscle tension (30 percent)
- change in appetite (23 percent)
- teeth grinding (17 percent)
While these symptoms of stress are annoying and undesirable, they are just the tip of the iceberg. When we look deeper, we find that chronic stress is responsible for or contributes to some of the most common diseases and disorders afflicting urban, industrialized societies.
Psychological Effects Of Chronic Stress
Stress obviously can make you feel anxious and unhappy, but stress does more than disturb your emotional well-being — it actually changes the function and health of your brain. Stress has been linked to numerous mood and brain-related disorders including depression, anxiety, panic disorders, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Stress makes the blood-brain barrier, the filter that keeps foreign invaders out of the brain, more permeable. This allows pathogens, heavy metals, chemicals, and other toxins to leak more easily into the brain. Blood-brain barrier permeability is associated with brain cancer, brain infections, and multiple sclerosis. Stress, particularly stress that occurs during midlife, can double your risk of developing Alzheimer’s in the future.
Dr. John Medina is a molecular biologist and author of the bestseller Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. He explains why prolonged stress is so detrimental to your brain. The human brain is designed to deal with stress that lasts about 30 seconds — the kind our long-ago ancestors experienced when face-to-face with a wild animal that wanted them for dinner.
According to Dr. Medina, “The brain is not designed for long term stress when you feel like you have no control. The saber-toothed tiger ate you or you ran away but it was all over in less than a minute. If you have a bad boss, the saber-toothed tiger can be at your door for years, and you begin to deregulate. If you are in a bad marriage, the saber-toothed tiger can be in your bed for years, and the same thing occurs. You can actually watch the brain shrink.”
He goes on to say, “Stress damages virtually every kind of cognition that exists.” Cognitive skills include memory, attention, language, decision making, problem solving, visual perception, motor skills, and more.
Diseases Linked To Chronic Stress
As bad as stress is on the brain, it’s equally hard on the rest of you. Dr. Jay Winner, author of Take the Stress Out of Your Life and director of the Stress Management Program at the renowned Sansum Clinic, says, “Stress doesn’t only make us feel awful emotionally, it can also exacerbate just about any health condition you can think of.”
Here’s a closer look at some of the most common health conditions with a strong correlation to chronic stress:
If there’s one medical emergency that comes to mind when you think of stress, it’s probably a heart attack. This isn’t just a myth. Numerous studies show that sudden emotional stress can trigger certain kinds of heart attacks. While this generally happens in people diagnosed with heart disease, sometimes a stress-induced heart attack can be the first sign of heart disease. During times of stress, heart rate increases while the arteries simultaneously narrow causing a rise in blood pressure. Stress causes some blood cells to become more sticky. These factors combine to create the perfect storm for a heart attack or stroke.
The brain and intestines are so closely related that the gut has been dubbed the second brain. It is not surprising then that prolonged stress can disrupt the digestive system. Irritable bowel syndrome, characterized by alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea, is strongly linked to stress. Stress can be responsible for flareups of Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. While it’s now widely believed that ulcers are caused by the H. pylori bacteria and not by stress, stress can still predispose you to ulcers by enhancing colonization of this bacteria in your GI tract.
Obesity And Eating Disorders
Obesity has become an international health epidemic. An increase in cortisol triggers cravings for comfort foods that are high in carbohydrates. Patients with anorexia and bulimia usually exhibit chronically elevated levels of stress hormones, including cortisol. Giving in to these cravings in turn helps temporarily relieve stress by increasing levels of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. Unfortunately, the weight gained from stress eating is often abdominal fat — the unhealthy kind of fat that settles around your middle and increases the risk of diabetes and heart problems.
Depressed Immune System
Chronic stress depresses the immune system and increases your susceptibility to infections, cold, and flu. Studies show that being under constant stress can reduce white blood cell counts, making you more vulnerable to getting sick. People who carry the herpes virus are more likely to have a viral activation when stressed.
Stress can exacerbate diabetes by impairing the patient’s ability to manage their blood sugar levels effectively. Many diabetics report their blood sugar runs higher when they are under a lot of stress.
By disrupting the production of sex hormones, stress can interfere with libido, sexual health, and reproductive capacity. It can reduce sexual desire and sperm count, and can cause erectile dysfunction in men. Stress can affect women through all stages of life. It contributes to premenstrual syndrome, can have adverse effects on the health of pregnancies during childbearing years, and intensifies the symptoms of menopause later in life.
Chronic stress is bad for your skin. It’s one of the most common causes of eczema and can aggravate many skin conditions including hives, psoriasis, acne, rosacea, and unexplained itching. It can also cause alopecia areata, unexplained hair loss that often occurs during periods of intense stress.
Chronic Stress Prevents Your Body From Healing
One of the most insidious ways chronic stress makes you sick is by interfering with your body’s natural ability to course-correct itself. Dr. Lissa Rankin is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute, and bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. She contends, “The body is beautifully equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that know how to fight cancer, prevent infection, ward off heart disease, and retard aging. But these self-repair mechanisms are turned off every time the body is in stress response. This wouldn’t be a problem if your body was only in stress response once or twice a week, since stress responses are only meant to last 90 seconds beyond when the threat to your life is over.”
The Surprising Number One Cause Of Chronic Stress
Every year the American Psychological Association conducts a survey to take America’s pulse on stress. According to the 2014 Stress in America: Paying With Our Health survey, the top things most people are stressed about are their jobs, finances, and money. While money has become essential for survival, money worries are not the acute, short-lived stressors we are designed to cope with. It’s not the same as being confronted with a hungry tiger. Worries about money are insidious, invasive, and keep you up at night.
But no matter how worried you are about your finances, it’s not lack of money that’s the primary cause of stress and its ability to make you sick. It’s not easy to hear, but the real reason stress is making you sick is your own thoughts about money. What makes any situation stressful is purely subjective. An activity you might find stressful another person might find great fun. (I can’t imagine anything more stressful than jumping out of an airplane, yet I know people who sky dive for fun!)
The research is clear that stressors themselves are not the cause of the negative impact of stress. Rather, it’s each individual’s reaction to stressors — whether it induces chronic stress for them — that determines the extent to which those stressors will impact their health.
Life will always provide plenty of opportunities to get stressed out. What matters to your health is how you respond to it. Learning to manage your reaction to stress is one of the most important things you can do for a long, happy, and healthy life.