The Physical Dangers of Stress
Following is a list and explanations of the physical damage stress can cause to all our different body parts.
Stress begins in the brain, with a surge of hormones causing intense alertness. In this hyped state, we cannot relax or sleep. But our minds cannot function at this extreme level for prolonged periods: Eventually the hormone surges and exhaustion cause tension headaches, irritability, aggression, inability to concentrate and memory loss. Unchecked stress can also trigger depression, which strikes twice as many women as men. Stress suppresses the hypothalamus, the emotion control center in our brains, curbing the production of the hormones that energize us and make us feel well.
The surging hormones induced by stress improve our hearing to help us react to danger. But better hearing can actually be bad for the body: A Cornell University study concluded that even moderate noise elevates heart damaging stress hormones. Studies have also shown that a lot of small noisy stressors added together — honking horns, ringing telephones and loud co-workers — can be more dangerous to the body than one major stressful event.
One of the first things we do when we feel stressed is hyperventilate. It is part of the body’s fight-or-flight response — in case we are in danger and need the extra oxygen in our bloodstream to run for cover. Those quick breaths can cause dizziness and sharp pains in the diaphragm. Sever stress can aggravate asthma and other dangerous respiratory conditions.
The adrenaline rush from stress dilates the eyes, improving vision. But it also triggers eye ticks because eye muscles become fatigued. Eyes may bulge if stress over-stimulates the thyroid gland.
Dry mouth, bad breath and difficulty swallowing occur when stress makes us take short, shallow breaths. Under constant stress, some people clench their jaws or grind their teeth.
Considered a barometer of inner health, hair is often the first to suffer. A body under stress burns nutrients like the vitamin selenium, and that can lead to dull hair and premature graying. Chronic stress can trigger the autoimmune system to attack hair follicles, causing hair to fall out completely or in clumps.
A heart under stress pumps fast and hard. Blood pressure rises as the body produces the hormone epinephrine as well as the hormone cortisol. That can lead to heart palpitations and chest pains. In those with heart disease, stress can prevent blood from clotting properly and stimulate the formation of plaque that plugs arteries. Researchers say that even thinking about something stressful raises blood pressure. A Swedish study concluded that stressful romantic relationships were more damaging to a person’s heart than work-related stress: Those in troubled marriages were three times more likely to be hospitalized for heart problems.
Did you ever get sick after a stressful event? Extreme and constant stress lowers our white blood cell count, making us more susceptible to disease and hampering our body’s ability to heal itself. One study showed that the pneumonia vaccine was less effective in people under constant stress. Meanwhile, researchers are studying the link between stress and autoimmune disorders like Graves disease, in which antibodies attack the thyroid, eye muscles and skin.
Joints, Muscles and Bones
At tense moments, our brain sends messages to the muscles, tightening them and preparing them for action. Chronic stress can aggravate rheumatoid arthritis, cause sore muscles and make us prone to sprains.
Stress causes hormones to be released that make acne, rashes and itchy patches worse. Some people blush, while others go pale when the small blood cells in the skin contract. Under extreme stress, people can become covered in hives. Any skin problem will get worse when you are under stress.
Under stress, the brain shifts blood flow away from the digestive tract, which slows digestion. The result: indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, incontinence and colon spasm. Stress increases acid production, aggravating ulcers. It is also linked to colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, a painful and sometimes debilitating disorder.
Stress and Depression
There appears to be a complex relationship among stressful situations, our mind and body’s reaction to stress, and the onset of clinical depression. It is clear that some people develop depression after a stressful event in their lives. Events such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job,
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or the end of a relationship are often negative and traumatic and cause great stress for many people. Stress can also occur as the result of a more positive event such as getting married, moving to a new city, or starting a new job. It is not uncommon for either positive or negative events to become a crisis that precedes the development of clinical depression.
Whether a stressful event itself can actually cause a person to become depressed is not fully known. There are times when we all must struggle with very painful situations in our lives. More times than not these changes do not result in a person becoming clinically depressed. In fact, sometimes people become depressed even when there is little or no stress in their lives and everything seems to be going very well. And, no single stressful event will cause depression to develop in every person. The same type of stressor may lead to depression in one person, but not another.
If a stressful experience causes a person to become depressed, it may happen indirectly. In other words, if a young woman with a family history of major depression suffers the death of a loved one, she may become clinically depressed. In this situation it is not necessarily the traumatic loss itself that caused the development of depression, but the combination of a genetic predisposition with the stressful event that made her vulnerable to becoming depressed.
For those who struggle with more chronic depression, the effects of stress may be more complicated. A stressful event such as a job loss or the death of a loved one is more likely to come before a first or second depressive episode. After that, further depressive episodes may develop spontaneously. It is not certain why stress may lead to depression in this way. However, researchers have theorized an explanation called the “kindling effect,” or “kindling-sensitization hypothesis.” This theory surmises that initial depressive episodes spark changes in the brain’s chemistry and limbic system that make it more prone to developing future episodes of depression. This may be compared to the use of kindling wood to spark the flames of a campfire. Since early episodes of depression make a person more sensitive to developing depression, even small stressors can lead to later depressive episodes.
Some people may become depressed as a result of having to struggle with chronic stress. These constant difficulties may come in the form of having to juggle multiple roles at home and work, making major changes in lifestyle, being in an abusive environment, etc. They may also come with important and normal transitions in life such as late adolescence and early adulthood when many people separate from their families to establish their own independence. Middle age may require adjustment to changes in fertility and virility, children leaving the home, concern about job advancement, and a re-evaluation of accomplishments in life. Retirement is another time of major change as some people struggle with a reduction of position and finances. If a person is under continuous stress, a single difficult event may be more likely to induce a depressive episode. For instance, if a middle-aged woman is in an unhappy marriage, she may be more likely to become depressed after her youngest child leaves home for college. The event of her child leaving home may not by itself have been enough to lead to depression, but the constant stress of an unhappy marriage combined with this event may be enough to trigger clinical depression.
In studying how stressful events may lead to depression, researchers have developed a theory called, “learned helplessness.” This theory states that when people experience chronic or repeated stressful events, they learn to feel helpless. This feeling of helplessness is strengthened when a person believes he or she has no control over the stressful situation. Although the research to support this theory was initially done with animals, the effects of learned helplessness may be seen in depressed humans. People who are depressed very often have negative beliefs about their ability to manage aspects of their lives based on perceived failures in the past. For example, imagine an adolescent girl living in a home with verbally abusive parents who tell her that she is stupid and cannot do anything right. Over time the young girl may believe her parents and come to doubt her abilities and self-worth. She may begin to feel helpless and believe that most things are beyond her control. This feeling of helplessness may make her vulnerable to developing clinical depression at some point in her life.
Work-related stress can kill, study finds
By Michael Kahn Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008; 9:27 AM
LONDON (Reuters) – Work really can kill you, according to a study on Wednesday providing the strongest evidence yet of how on-the-job stress raises the risk of heart disease by disrupting the body’s internal systems.
The findings from a long-running study involving more than 10,000 British civil servants also suggest stress-induced biological changes may play a more direct role than previously thought, said Tarani Chandola, an epidemiologist at University College London.
“This is the first large-scale population study looking at the effects of stress measured from everyday working life on heart disease,” said Chandola, who led the study. “One of the problems is people have been skeptical whether work stress really affects a person biologically.”
Heart disease is the world’s leading cause of death. It is caused by fatty deposits that harden and block arteries, high blood pressure which damages blood vessels, and other factors.
The researchers measured stress among the civil servants by asking questions about their job demands such as how much control they had at work, how often they took breaks, and how pressed for time they were during the day.
The team conducted seven surveys over a 12-year period and found chronically stressed workers — people determined to be under severe pressure in the first two of the surveys — had a 68 percent higher risk of developing heart disease.
The link was strongest among people under 50, Chandola said.
“This study adds to the evidence that the work stress-coronary heart disease association is causal in nature,” the researchers wrote in the European Heart Journal.
Behavior and biological changes likely explain why stress at work causes heart disease, Chandola said. For one, stressed workers eat unhealthy food, smoke, drink and skip exercise — all behaviors linked to heart disease.
In the study, stressed workers also had lowered heart rate variability — a sign of a poorly-functioning weak heart — and higher-than-normal levels of cortisol, a “stress” hormone that provides a burst of energy for a fight-or-flight response.
Too much cortisol circulating in the blood stream can damage blood vessels and the heart, Chandola said.
“If you are constantly stressed out these biological stress systems become abnormal,” Chandola said.
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