One standard medical text estimates that 50 – 80% of all diseases have their origins in stress. Stress has both negative and positive effects on the body. It is positive when physical activity strengthens the heart and muscles. Exercise is a form of stress that produces positive physical and psychological results. The negative effects of stress are evident in diseases that originate from poor diets, lack of exercise, pollution and increased amounts of social stress. Emotional stress is more likely to cause disease than physical stress.
Disease is a long term effect of stress. Short term effects include elevated blood pressure, accelerated heart rate and loss of appetite. Stress can also alter a person’s brain wave activity, endocrine and immunological balances. Stress can cause sweaty palms (among other types of perspiration), dilated pupils, and difficulty in swallowing, which is often characterized as a ‘lump in the throat’. A person under stress may feel a tightness in the chest, and when the stress is relieved, the person says it is like ‘getting a load off the chest’. The stomach is also in danger from stress. Acid is pumped into the stomach during extreme stressful situations, creating an ideal environment for an ulcer to form. Many skin diseases result from emotional stress as well. The prolonged exposure to stress can also lower the body’s resistance to infection.
Stress has a tremendously negative effect on our ability to fight illness and disease because it suppresses our immune system’s capacity to produce and maintain lymphocytes and natural killer (NK) cells.
There are two factors responsible for illness or disease: an invading foreign substance and a lowered resistance. Stress can alter and may even shut down the immune response. This lowers our resistance and leaves us susceptible to attack from everything from the common cold virus to cancer cells. One cancer theory is that everyone at some point in his or her life develops a cancer. The difference between those who are afflicted and those who aren’t is their immune system response, which is controlled by stress. Cancer victims are the ones whose natural killer cells were weakened or made inactive by stress and therefore could not control the damaging cells.
The body responds to stress in three stages. Stage one is called the alarm stage. In this stage the body prepares to fight or flee when confronted by a stressor. Hormones are released from the endocrine glands and cause an increase in heartbeat and respiration, elevation in blood sugar level, increase in perspiration, dilated pupils and slowed digestion. At this point the body has a burst of energy that can be used to either fight or flee the stressor. It is during this stage that the resistance of the body is reduced.
Stage two is called the resistance stage and is used to repair any damage caused by the stress. Resistance can occur only if the stressor is not too powerful. Body adaptation develops to fight back the stress or possibly avoid it.
If the stressor remains consistent, the body is thrown into stage three, the exhaustion stage. Stage one symptoms reappear at this point. This is the most dangerous stage because disease can develop if the stress persists. If the stressor does not let up, the person may experience migraine headaches, heart irregularities or even mental illness. The body can even run out of energy and may even shut down its basic functions.
This three stage process is called the General Adaptation Syndrome. The resistance stage is dangerous in that we adapt to the stressor. In other words, we become adjusted to a higher level of stress without noticing it. We feel good, unaware that our body is still in a state of stress resistance.
Our body works overtime during this stage to keep us healthy, but at the same time it loses its ability to keep up with the demand the stress puts upon it. The General Adaptation Syndrome is thought to be the reason stress is becoming such an abundant source of health problems. Today’s society is becoming more complex, offering increased demands and new challenges we must constantly face at a faster and more intense pace. By changing the way our body normally functions, these stress challenges disrupt the natural balance crucial for well-being. Stress can virtually eliminate our chances for extending and improving life. It does so by breaking down resistance and increasing the odds that all our bodily functions will eventually give out and fail us.
To understand what physiological processors take place during stress, we must look at the brain. When stress occurs, the nerve impulses reach the brain and stimulate the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus does two things. First, it sends nerve impulses to the adrenal glands located on top of our kidneys, and second, it sends a chemical message to the pituitary gland located at the base of the brain.
Stimulation of these glands is what prepares the body for the fight or flight response mentioned earlier. This process causes three more reactions: a surge of adrenaline, a discharge of cortisol and a release of endorphin. Adrenaline causes the heart rate to quicken, which increases blood pressure and blood flow. This brings extra oxygen – nature’s purest fuel – to every cell in the body. Adrenaline also increases glucose or blood sugar necessary for extra energy needed during stressful encounters.
Cortisol causes an increase in blood amino acids as well as an increase in blood sugar. Protein is made up of amino acids, and because stress leads to tissue damage, proper recovery depends on cortisol being released by the adrenal gland.
Endorphin is released by the brain in any stress situation. It is several hundred times more potent than morphine and works as a natural tranquilizer. Exercise causes endorphins to be released, and therefore a regular exercise program will heighten one’s ability to combat normal daily stressors. People who do not exercise are more susceptible to the negative effects of stress reactions.
Good versus Bad Stress: The Difference can Help or Hurt You
Although the stress response is basically the same in all of us, the degree to which it affects us depends on how we handle stress as individuals. Stress can be either good or bad depending on how we perceive it. We can become more stress tolerant by changing our attitudes and conditioning ourselves to look at it in a new way. We need to change our response to stress from negative and harmful to positive and beneficial – to view it as something constructive rather than destructive.
To achieve this shift in attitude we must be highly internally motivated. The internally motivated person feels that he or she is in control of events that occur – that they are masters of their own fate. We commonly refer to these people as self made individuals, who, in spite of the odds against them, pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.
On the other end of the spectrum is the external person, who feels that ‘no matter how hard I try, the deck is stacked against me’. In general, good stress results from situations we can control and bad stress results from situations we have no control over. This internal/external view of life determines whether an individual feels control over stressors. External people are stress prone because they feel powerless to control or influence the events around them.
Stress Prone Personalities
A more common identification of internal/external personalities is Type A and Type B people. A type A personality is someone who is hard driving, excitable, volatile, and success and career oriented. These people rush from appointment to appointment. They’re continually bombarded with short term stress and create dangerous health situations because they allow no time for relaxation. They are the prime candidates for a heart attack.
Type B personalities are just the opposite. They’re relaxed and unhurried, patient, non competitive, non aggressive, and are not under severe time constraints. But being at this end of the spectrum is not necessary healthy either. Selye theorized that some people suffer from too little stress – something he called hypostress. These people actually need more external stimuli and more activity into their lives. They become addicted to drugs or alcohol due to a lack of motivation and the stabilizing effect of constructive goals. This does not mean that all type B personalities are unmotivated or spend all of their time meditating. It’s just a factor that must be considered when weighing the pros and cons in each type of personality.
It’s possible for type A people to modify their behavior by changing their outlook on stress and breaking some of the long term stress habits they’ve acquired over the years. Certain exercises, called Type B Behavior Exercises, can help a type A person achieve a new approach to stress. These exercises include: putting down your knife and fork between bites at meal time, forcing yourself to do more recreational activities, spending the entire day without your watch, and turning your frowns into smiles even when it hurts. The idea is that once people recognize themselves as type A, they can then modify their behavior.