Stress Impact on Health and Human Body: the Dark Cloud Overhead

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Table of Contents

  • Types of Stressors
  • Stress and Brain
  • Types of Stress
  • Impact of Stress on Health
  • Manage Stress, Secure Health

“9 am meeting/presentation, rush for the early morning train, crowded commute, exam, sports competition, deadlines, the early wakeup call to manage chores and family, overthinking on real and imaginary issues, strained relationships, illness and the list goes on…Phew!” Summing up everyday life of many- be it a child, adult, or elderly; the common response to such events is ‘Stress’!

Flashback to our ancestors ages ago– living as a hunter-gatherer in a world where threat of becoming prey of predators was real. A sudden rustle in the woods of the jungle, alerted them to locate the nearby animal, about to pounce. In order to survive to tell this tale, they would have rapidly switched from a mode of ‘rest and digest’ to ‘fight or flee.’ Once the threat to life had passed, their body would go back to the earlier state, until the next threat appears, in days or months. The better their nervous system initiated this switch, the greater was their chance of survival.

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Fast forward to present– modern humans live in a completely different world from the one we evolved. Fear of becoming prey no longer exists, but threats from work/home/society are like an animal ready to pounce, and trigger the same response! Instead of spending majority of life in a ‘rest and digest’ state like our ancestors, we constantly experience low to high levels of stress that shift us into ‘fight or flight’, many times in a day or even an hour!

‘Stress’ is a survival mechanism. It is a biological and psychological response when one comes across a threat that disturbs physical, mental and emotional balance. Short-term stress alerts mind and body to deal with the situation with a better focus. But, experiencing constant stressors (anything causing stress) keeps us in stressed mode always! The stress response system is not designed to be activated continuously. Over time, chronic stress disturbs physical, emotional and mental well-being, affecting overall health. Stress can affect anyone, at any age. To understand its type and intensity, one has to recognise this silent killer rightly first!

Types of Stressors

  • Physiological/ Physical – These put strain on body (extreme temperatures, pain, injury, chronic illness)
  • Psychosocial – Events, individuals, comments, situations or anything we perceive dangerous, negative or threatening in mind be it work deadlines/meetings, time pressure, traffic, taxes, exam, trauma, violence, dysfunctional families, abuse, fights or disputes.

Stress and Brain

When brain receives stress signal from sensory organs, amygdala (brain area for emotional processing) interprets it as danger and sends distress signal to command center, hypothalamus gland. Hypothalamus stimulates pituitary gland by releasing hormone, Corticotropin-Releasing Factor (CRF). Pituitary gland secretes Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH), which stimulates adrenal glands above the kidneys, to produce stress hormone, Cortisol. Hypothalamus also activates sympathetic nervous system by sending signals to adrenal glands, which secrete hormones- Epinephrine (adrenaline) and Norepinephrine.

Hypothalamus communicates with rest of the body through Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) wherein sympathetic nervous system triggers flight or fight response. Stress related hormones (neurotransmitters), especially cortisol revs up body, narrowing attention, making one alert. Quick physiological changes like- increased heart rate and blood pressure, constricted blood vessels in skin and gut, increased insulin resistance and blood glucose levels, and suppressed immune system occur, Once stress is relieved, cortisol levels fall. Parasympathetic nervous system calms body (promotes ‘rest and digest’ response– acts like a break). Chronic stress keeps stimulating Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, producing high levels of stress hormones, just like a motor idling for too long.

Types of Stress

Acute Stress – Most common short-term stress, that happens from demands and pressure of recent past expected demands and pressures of near future. In small doses, it is thrilling, but too much stress becomes exhausting. Example: Work deadlines or meeting, household chores, fights, unpleasant person, etc.

Symptoms: Emotional (anger, anxiety, irritability, overwhelmed, difficult to silence mind), physical (headache, dizziness, nervousness, low energy, heartburn, upset stomach, constipation, backache, muscular tensions, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, sleeplessness, cold-sweaty palms and feet) cognitive (constant worry, forgetfulness, racing thoughts, inability to focus, poor judgement, negative attitude).

Episodic Acute Stress – Intense periods of acute stress often cause disordered life with chaos. Those in its clutches are always late, in hurry and cannot organise their priorities and demands. Type A personality, an extreme case of episodic acute stress showing excessive aggressiveness, impatience, deep-seated insecurity with hostility are prone to heart diseases.

Symptoms: extended over-arousal, short-temper, never-ending worry, emotional and cognitive signs (given above), hypertension, chest pain.

Chronic Stress – This grinding stress due to repeated exposure to certain situations, non-stop demands and pressures for never-ending periods cause constant release of stress hormones. It wears people away day by day, for years, wreaking havoc on mind and body, affecting relationships and work-life balance. Caused by serious issues of financial distress, violence, abuse, poverty, dysfunctional families, hated profession; one just lives with it every day.

Symptoms: Persistent stress response signs (given above), hopelessness can cause fatal breakdown with violence or even suicide.

Impact of Stress on Health

Obesity – High levels of stress hormones, especially cortisol leads to overeating by causing cravings for high-calorie comfort-junk foods. Loaded with unhealthy fats, these foods raise bad cholesterol levels. High cortisol accumulates white adipose tissue (fat cells) near abdomen, increasing belly fat and waistline.

Heart Diseases – Cortisol helps maintain salt and water balance, and heart’s function depends highly upon salt (sodium) levels. Stress-induced sweating causes salt loss. Thus, cortisol stimulates craving for salt. Stress also increases the thirst for water. Drinking too much water then raises blood pressure as blood volume increases. Accumulated belly fat cells secrete certain active proteins, adipokines which form plaques in arteries. These events together increase risk of heart diseases.

Diabetes – Due to chronic stress response, insulin levels remain low and blood sugar levels remain high. In long term, cells become resistant to insulin. Coupled with obesity and other stress induced effects, risk of diabetes is high.

Upper Respiratory Diseases – Chronic presence of stress hormones and unhealthy stress-coping habits can suppress protective functions of immune system, making one vulnerable to frequent common cold, influenza and other respiratory diseases.

Mental Health – High cortisol levels and reduced levels of relaxing hormones, serotonin and dopamine, disrupt processes regulating sleep, appetite, energy, causing unhealthy coping patterns. This increases psychological distress, negativity, deteriorating memory, focus and attention span, causing depression, anxiety disorders and even increasing risk of other mental disorders.

Harmful effects become worse for those with prior or family history of medical condition, having unhealthy lifestyle habits (drinking alcohol, smoking, substance abuse) and low to no physical activity to relieve stress!

Manage Stress, Secure Health

Learning stress management techniques proactively with regular physical activity, Yoga, meditation, deep breathing and relaxation exercises, along with maintaining an attitude of assertion, positivity and acceptance can help manage stress to a large extent. If unable to manage on their own, consultation and medications (anti-depressants, sedatives) prescribed by a physician may help to cope with stress. However, long-term use of these medicines is not advisable as they are addictive and pose side-effects.

While what stresses everyone is different, the recipe for stress is universal. A stressful situation contains ingredients like, something new (novelty), unpredictability, threat to ego and lack of control. So when stressed, recognizing it, breathing first, seeing the bigger picture pouring out the feelings and thoughts would lessens the burden.

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