Some effects believed to be linked to stress have not been borne out by research. Ulcers, in particular, were thought to be caused by stress. Though the acid produced during moments of stress may increase discomfort, contemporary research points more to genetic factors in combination with certain stomach viruses as the likely culprit.
But evidence is accumulating that some health effects are strongly influenced by stress.
Some of the more elementary and obvious effects of stress are well known. Headaches, excessive muscle tension, high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, interrupted digestion, and other symptoms are often recognized. But there are longer-term, and more serious, potential consequences from chronic stress.
Just as one example, several studies undertaken at the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere strongly suggest that stress has an effect on the immune system. Interestingly, the effect is sometimes positive, sometimes negative.
Since stress, in one definition, is just a person’s ‘fight or flight’ response to a perceived threat, it can have a positive effect. It triggers the release of biochemicals that can help heal infections from bites, punctures or other damage. That makes sense if you consider how evolution might have tailored the immune system to deal with these problems.
But when that response persists over a long period of time, the effects can be harmful.
One result is that the immune system actually decreases in effectiveness. This is logical if you consider that once those chemicals are depleted, but have nothing to act on and hence dissolve, they can’t readily be produced again when there is something to counteract. The result is a higher susceptibility to infection and a lowered resistance to colds and other virus induced illnesses.
The other result is a general fatigue and sometimes depression. When a person is stressed for long-periods, there is a feedback between one part of the cause – the belief that no action is possible to overcome the stress initiating events – and the effects. In other words, the belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another impact on health caused by chronic stress is a compromised circulatory system. When stress hormones released by the ‘fight or flight’ trigger don’t get used up by physical activity, they can cause actual physiological stress on the body.
High blood pressure increases physical tension on the walls of blood vessels. When the body reacts to heal the micro-tears that sometimes result, scar tissue can be produced. That decreases the ease of blood flow through them.
If carried to an extreme or for a long enough period, or for individuals at risk for genetic or age reasons, heart attacks can occur. As the blood vessels narrow, the heart may be unable to deliver sufficient blood and oxygen at moments of high demand.
Stress has long been known to worsen the effects of rheumatoid arthritis. As the link between this condition and the immune system have become better understood over the years, it’s clearer why this should be so.
Protect your physical and mental well-being by practicing techniques to lower it. Adopt a philosophy that helps minimize stress in your life. Your health depends on it.