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Does stress make you sick?

Me? Stressed? HardlyLook around you. There are too many people spending too much time at the Doctor.  Research tells us that stress causes more than its fair share of physical and emotional problems; from cancer to the flu to anxiety and depression. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that one-third of the population live with extreme stress and 48 percent say it has increased over the past five years.

What causes stress? It’s caused by environmental, internal, or social events that signal danger and sets off a chain reaction—your fight or flight response—at the centre of which is your hypothalamus. About the size of an almond this stress trigger is located just above your brain stem. Within seconds many organs and regions of the brain spring into action producing major chemical changes in the body which, in the face of real danger, serve us well. It prepares us to deal with the stressful event either by attacking it head on or escaping from it. But most of today’s stressors are different. They are subtle, more complicated, last longer, and are not easy to attack or avoid.

A thorough review of the literature by Hawkley and her colleagues in 2007 put financial strain and social isolation near the top of the stressor list. Many people live pay cheque to pay cheque and for those trying to support a family the stress is endless. Obviously, living alone can produce social isolation, but so can living with someone if the warm and supportive bond is gone.  In that case you might be less stressed and healthier if you live alone. There are many other stressors. A few of them are unrelenting pain, disability, and of course sickness, all of which can lead to prolonged stress.   

The problem is that our bodily and chemical reactions haven’t evolved much since we swung from trees. Today’s stressors aren’t lions springing out of the bush, they are long term money shortages, unpredictable jobs, shaky markets, unfamiliar technology, sour relationships, or any of hundreds of changes that are in our face and uncontrollable. Unlike an encounter with a lion, which is over in a few minutes, our present-day stressors impact us for months at a time. The one common feature is that most of the stressors are things we can’t control and when we lack control stress compounds until it exhausts us and makes us sick.

Dr. Hans Selye, a famous Canadian endocrinologist, discovered decades ago that we can adapt to short term stress, but when it continues for long periods our ability to adapt breaks down and we suffer. When the chemicals our body produces to handle short term stress are pumped into our system for weeks and months on end the result is not good. 

Sugar gets dumped from our liver into our blood, our heart works harder, blood pressure increases, vessels constrict to reduce the flow of oxygen and nutrients to non-essential areas of the body, and our digestive process slows down.  Perhaps most importantly, when this chain reaction is prolonged due to continuous stress, our immune system is weakened; our ability to fight disease is compromised and we’re at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, intestinal problems, and who knows what else.

So how can we manage stress? We have to deal directly and constructively with the stressors we can control. Allwood and Salo (2012) and Ben-Zur (2012) say we can lessen the effects of stress when we meet it head-on using a rational method of coping instead of an avoidant hide-your-head-in-the-sand strategy. Hiding from stress instead of dealing with it causes a greater sense of threat which is even more stressful.

The most common suggestion for dealing with the uncontrollable stressful events is to be mindful: Acknowledge them, realize they’re out of your control, let them pass through your mind, and then boot them to hell out of there. I know, it’s much easier said than done. But think about it; when you truly have no control over the stressful event, fretting and stewing does no good. Rumination makes it worse. Once you’ve taken every rational step to counter-act the stressor try to practice mindful meditation twenty minutes a day.  Let all thoughts and memories flow freely through your mind—without reacting to them—and live well between your ears.

Copyright © Doug Spencer 2012

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