Just thought I'd share my latest mini-paper. It's on stress and how it effects us even down to a cellular level. Please I implore you to get your coffee and read this. If not, at least watch the national Geographic special entitled, Stress: Portrait of a Killer.
In every facet of our lives, we will encounter stress. It can be good stress such as a wedding or birth and it can be bad stress such as being late for an interview or financial turmoil. One thing we know for certain is that as long as we are living we will encounter stress. The idea we have to grasp now is how to manage and cope with the emotions and responses that arise as a result of the stress. There is new and alarming research and findings that suggests if we don’t learn to manage our stress, we are setting ourselves up for an early death.
There are some people who naturally cope with stressors well. They respond with cool headedness and logic. Generally, it takes a significant issue or problem to register with them as a legitimate stressor, and for them to respond with the same level of urgency and anxiety that we see in chronically stressed people. People who are chronically stressed are bothered by the littlest things in life and it all has a direct effect on their bodies. People who are constantly triggering their stress response are facing life altering health risks including high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack, aneurysm, and stroke. Poor lifestyle choices associated with chronically stressed people, such as unhealthy diet and exercise, can have a major impact on the person’s health in the long run. For the purpose of this paper the word stress will be referring to the negative type of stress. The Japanese have a word for this type of stress, “Karoshi”, meaning “death by overwork”.
Some well known symptoms of stress and perhaps the most talked about and researched are: physical symptoms; including headache, back pain, decreased immunity, chest pain, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, digestive issues, and sleep disturbance. Psychological symptoms include anxiety, irritability, restlessness, depression, sadness, anger, forgetfulness, and negative feelings of self. Behavioral symptoms include over or under eating, emotional outbursts, alcohol or drug abuse, and interpersonal conflict (MayoClinic, 2009; WebMD, 2010). In this paper I will highlight some of the more debilitating and life threatening aspects of stress; high blood pressure, depression and tension, obesity, libido, what happens to our bodies on a cellular level due to stress, and finally treatment options for chronic stress.
High Blood Pressure
This is particularly important to pay attention to because anyone who is chronically stressed is probably experiencing this and needs to tend to it sooner rather than later. The constant flow of the stress hormones like adrenaline (epinephrine) and glucocorticoids running through the blood in addition to high blood pressure does damage to the arterial walls, causing plaque to build up in these areas. The plaque buildup restricts blood flow to the heart making the heart work harder and could result in a heart attack. Secondly, the plaque build-up may burst causing a blood clot, ultimately resulting in a stroke.
Depression and Tension
People who suffer from chronic stress have higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that is released into their brain (Bruno, 2009). This, along with lowered levels of dopamine and serotonin causes a disruption in the brain’s central functioning unit, the hippocampus. When the neurotransmitters aren’t working properly in this region of the brain, there is a direct affect on mood, appetite, sexual drive, etc. resulting in depression. Depression opens the door to a plethora of conditions and disorders such as obsessive compulsive tendencies, alcohol and drug abuse, impulse control issues, and more dangerous situations like cutting and suicide. Indeed a portion of depression is caused by environmental and social influences but a portion can also be contributed to chemistry within the brain.
When we worry or stress, we tend to end up with our shoulders at our ears and jaws clenched. The reason is that when the body is under stress, breathing becomes irregular, labored, and sometimes we may even find ourselves holding our breath. This causes tension in the thorax and shoulders, which is the pain and stiffness we can feel in our muscles. This is a problem because it debilitates movement which can cause injury with too much activity or stress. Tension in the neck and shoulders was thought to lead to tension headaches but recent research is pointing toward chemicals in the brain as the culprit (Mayo Clinic1, 2009).
Whether seen in the movies or in real life, we have experienced over eating a lot of bad food because of stress. There are times that stress brings about a need to eat lots of sugary high fat foods like cookies and pastries. This increased desire to eat high caloric foods is due to an increased amount of cortisol being released. In fact, excess cortisol is linked to visceral fat, or the fat around the abdomen (Adam & Epel, 2007).
In other words, higher stress equals more fat concentration around the abdomen. The risk with this is that visceral fat, unlike other fat, secretes hormones which affect the way the bodies metabolize sugar along with other health risks (Park, 2009).
Again, cortisol is our suspect here because it reduces testosterone, a hormone believed to increase libido (Mintz, 2010). “When a woman is stressed, the hormonal changes in her body trigger a chemical reaction causing sex hormone–binding globulin to bind with testosterone cells, so they’re unavailable for libido and sexual response.” (Laura Berman as cited by Frankel, 2008). While stress may be lowering libido, sex may be exactly what we need to help relieve stress (Frankel, 2008). Having sex releases hormones such as oxytocin and endorphins, hormones that make us feel good and happy.
While the above mentioned are just a small portion of the havoc chronic stress can wreak on the human body; it appears that the real war stress is waging on our bodies is happening on a cellular level. There is new research suggesting that stress is not just affecting us in the ways mentioned above, but that it is altering our bodies on a cellular level. Thanks to research, we know that ‘telomeres’, the caps on the ends of our chromosomes to keep them from unraveling and clumping together, are directly affected by stress! The length of a telomere is worn away with natural aging and stress over time, but chronic stress accelerates this process. It appears chronic stress shortens immune cell telomeres-DNA-protein complexes at the ends of chromosomes that promote genetic stability-impairing their ability to divide and multiply. This process may hinder the body's ability to fight off infection and cause premature onset of diseases (Epel, 2007). For example, mothers of special needs children (such as autism) have an overwhelming task of taking care of a special needs child in addition to running their household and caring for their other children (Forsloff, 2009). If we were to look at the telomeres of one of these mothers, we would see dramatic aging. For every year of normal aging, they age six! This is profound.
Other cohorts that may be experiencing rapid aging are those who experience crisis on a daily basis like fire and rescue, psychologists and counselors, social workers, and the victims themselves. People with jobs or careers that demand a lot and cause a significant amount of stress may experience rapid aging. Military and police personnel including correctional officers that find themselves in stressful situations may experience rapid aging. People with chronic depression and anxiety may also experience rapid aging. The variety of reasons why rapid aging and chronic stress takes place is endless and is not likely to stop altogether but there are things that can be done to reduce stress and live healthier lives as a direct result.
Treatment for the symptoms of stress include relaxation, meditation, sports, art, sleep, physical activity, therapy, journaling including blogging and forum ranting; whatever path we choose to alleviate our stress it is becoming clear that it should be an important part of our daily routine. Already we see that girlfriends get together for spa days, guys get together to shoot a few baskets or play a few rounds, kids get together for play dates, the elderly get together to exchange gossip and pictures of their grandchildren, some people like to “veg” on the couch in front of the television, other people like to sit and read or meditate; these are all ways in which people “wind-down” and de-stress.
While there are relaxation and mediation techniques available, I’d like to highlight the importance of stress reduction and prevention. Eliminating unnecessary stressors, for example, is one way of reducing the amount we have on our proverbial plate. This could be only taking two classes instead of three, or not enrolling your child into multiple extracurricular activities, which puts a strain on the entire family’s schedule. Getting rid of unrealistic goals is probably the best thing someone can do for themselves.
Another way to prevent or reduce stress involves the power of foresight. For example, I hate having to fumble around the kitchen (which is usually full of dirty dishes from the night before) to make coffee in the morning. Instead I make the coffee the night before so all I have to do is push the button. Crisis averted! Its little things like that that can make someone’s day go so much smoother. The best way to deal with stress is to know and understand our coping style (MayoClinic2, 2010). Although stress cannot be avoided totally, there are ways to minimize what we allow to stress us out.
Adam, T. C., & Epel, E. S. (2007). Stress, eating, and the reward system. Physiology & Behavior, 91, 449-458. Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/tension-headache/DS00304
Bruno, K. (2009). Stress and depression. WebMD. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/depression/features/stress-depression
Epel, E. S. (2007). Tackling stress at the cellular level. Monitor, 38(6), 65. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun07/tackling.aspx
Forsloff, C. (2009). Mothers of children with autism have higher stress levels. Digital Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/275672
Frankel, V. (2008). More sex, less stress. Mental Health on MSNBC.com. Retrieved from: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28146086/ns/health-mental_health/
MayoClinic1. (2009). Tension headache: Definition. MayoClinic. Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/tension-headache/DS00304
MayoClinic2. (2010). Stress management: Reexamine your stress reactions. MayoClinic. Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-management/SR00032
Mintz, L. (2010). Stress and sex. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stress-and-sex/201006/first-hello-high-strung-low-libido-therapist-who-stays-calm-and-has-great
Park, A. (2009). Fat-bellied monkeys suggest why stress sucks. Time.com. Retrieved from: http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1915237,00.html
WebMD. (2010). The effects of stress on your body. WebMD. Retrieved from: http://www.webmd.com/balance/guide/effects-of-stress-on-your-body