April is National Stress Awareness Month. Did you know that workplace stress is one of the major contributors to heart disease and hypertension? And your job isn’t the only thing that can cause stress in your life. Relationships, children, housing, money, and many daily hassles contribute to stress.
So what exactly is stress?
Stress is classified as psychological or emotional strain or tension that is usually the result of challenging circumstances. For example, you might be under a lot of pressure at work for a very important deadline. You feel as though your boss is literally breathing down your neck. Next thing you know, a huge change in direction comes down from the top offices. All of the hard work you’ve done is no longer appropriate. You feel your heart race, your face flush, and your anger rise. That is stress.
Stress is not an unnatural thing. And it isn’t always bad. It is part of our body’s natural flight or fight response, a piece of biological programming left over from our days as nomadic early humans. Stress is also the thrill you feel when you watch a horror movie or ride a roller coaster. Those thrills can be good stress, until they’re not. Stress that comes from outside sources over which you feel you have no control can lead to long-term health problems, and that is what the medical community is most concerned about.
Effects of stress
It’s easy to say that stress can cause tangible medical issues, but how do scientists and doctors recognize this?
The most common, and probably most concerning, effect on the body is on the heart in that it can lead to increased risk of heart disease and stroke. The science behind it is actually pretty simple. The feelings of anger and anxiety that are part of the body’s stress reaction cause the body to release high concentrations of pro-inflammatory cytokines, a chemical that can cause long-term damage to the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain and the heart. This process is called atherosclerosis.
There may be more to it than originally understood. This study, published May 2014 in Biological Psychiatry, indicates that brain activity may also play a part. Individuals who have greater brain activation when they are trying to regulate their negative emotional responses also have increased risk of atherosclerosis. The researchers believe that observing this link could have long-term implications on how we treat stress and prevent heart disease.
Who is affected by stress?
No one is immune to stress. At some point, everyone experiences it in their lives. It could be wedding planning, meeting new people, or a car accident. Some stress is unavoidable. But there are people who are more susceptible to stress and some situations which bring it on in higher concentrations. Women are often affected by stress more, especially if they are working mothers or pregnant. Older adults, widowed people, and individuals under financial strain or long-term unemployment are also highly affected. People experiencing discrimination feel more stress and have more negative health effects cause by it. People without a strong network of friends or relatives also have higher stress levels. And people who act as caregivers are impacted disproportionately as well.
In fact, even seeing someone else experiencing stress can create a stress response.
Oregon State University released a study in September of last year indicating that older men experiencing high stress in their lives were more likely to die earlier than average for their age group. The study reviewed acute stress, such as traffic, as well as large stressful life events such as the loss of a spouse. It demonstrated that handling small stressors in a constructive way could help people better deal with larger events in their lives.
From the director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research, Carolyn Aldwin:
“It’s not the number of hassles that does you in, it’s the perception of them being a big deal that causes problems. Taking things in stride may protect you.”
Risk factors for stress and pain
Stress is a major concern for doctors who treat patients experiencing chronic pain. Increased stress can exacerbate a number of pain conditions. This is why we focus on a holistic approach. Merely treating pain symptoms ignores and even minimizes the daily stress that pain patients can feel which, in turn, causes increased pain and more long-term problems. It is a vicious cycle.
Even acute stress, such as being late for work or dealing with an obstinate child, can have a negative effect on the body and it can reduce the body’s ability to withstand physical pain. A study in February by the American Friends of Tel Aviv University demonstrated that the mishandling of acute stress causes the body to be less effective at modulating pain responses. That is to say that people who have high stress responses to these situations also have increased pain even from unrelated conditions.
While there are a number of risk factors, including working any job or driving in any city, there are some that increase the risk of long-term problems resulting from stress. These include:
- Childhood experience or trauma
- Anxiety or depression
- Genetic factors that impact stress
- Compromised immune systems
Over the next week we will share more information about stress, its impact on health and chronic pain, and ways you can manage it in your own life.
Have you been affected by stressful events in your life?
Image by madstreetz via Flickr