Some level of stress is a normal part of life, but excess stress is not, and this causes health problems. The American Institute of Stress (AIS) believes that 60% of all illnesses are caused by stress (n.d.), and other sources claim that 80 to 90% of diseases are related to stress (Gale, 2014). Job-related stress is believed to cause 40 to 50% of all missed workdays (Liu et al., 2013). Other interesting statistics provided by the AIS state:
- “44% of Americans feel more stressed than they did 5 years ago
- 1 in 5 Americans experience extreme stress: shaking, heart palpitations, (and) depression
- 3 out 4 doctor’s visits are for stress-related ailments
- Stress increases the risk of heart disease by 40%, the risk of heart attack by 25%, and the risk of stroke by 50%
- 40% of stressed people overeat or eat unhealthy foods
- 44% of stressed people lose sleep every night
- Stress shrinks the brain- extreme stress events (i.e., divorce, job loss) reduce grey matter in regions tied to emotion and physiological functions which can lead to future psychiatric problems
- Stress-related ailments cost the nation $300 billion every year in medical bills and lost productivity ($100 billion more than obesity costs Americans)” (AIS, n.d.)
If you feel stressed, you are likely suffering from “agitation, increased blood pressure, increased heart rate… anxiety, and restlessness” (Buckle, 2003). You are also more likely to be suffering from asthma, autoimmune disease, burning sensation, cancer, cardiovascular disease, chest pain, common cold, cramps, depression, diabetes, digestion concerns, dizziness, emotional issues, eye problems, fatigue, headaches, heartburn, high blood pressure, hormonal problems, decreased immunity, indigestion, inflammation, irritable bowel syndrome, joint pain, menstrual irregularities, metabolic imbalances, mood swings, muscular aches and pains, neurodegenerative disease, numbness, premenstrual syndrome, reproductive issues, rheumatoid arthritis, stiffness, ulcerative colitis, and ulcers, among others (Copstead & Banasik, 2013; Gale, 2014; Liu, Lin, & Chang, 2013; Pizzorno & Murray, 2013).
The Textbook of Natural Medicine defines stress “as any disturbance- e.g., heat or cold, chemical toxin, microorganisms, physical trauma, strong emotional reaction- that can trigger the ‘stress response’ ” (Pizzorno & Murray, 2013). Hans Selye first identified the stress response in 1935 at McGill University. He conducted experiments on rats, and saw that the rats responded with bleeding ulcers and enlarged adrenal glands. Adrenals are responsible for releasing stress-related hormones. He also found reduced lymphatic glands, which are vital to the immune response. He qualified these symptoms as “the stress syndrome” (Buckle, 2003, p. 229). The link between stress and disease did not come until 1975 when Rahe, a University of Washington psychiatrist, interviewed 5000 people and found a correlation between stress symptoms and illness (Buckle, 2003).
Stages of Stress
A certain amount of stress is considered normal, but when stress is excessive or prolonged it can have damaging effects. Selye described three stages of stress, namely alarm, resistance, and exhaustion (Buckle, 2003).
Stage 1- Alarm aka Fight or Flight
The alarm response is also known as the fight or flight response, in which the body increases heartbeat and respiration, and lowers other functions, such as digestion, to give the body the necessary push to overcome a threat or danger (Copstead & Banasik, 2013). The fight or flight response helps the body deal with situations like discussions or arguments, a cold, running to catch a flight, or meeting a last minute deadline. Under normal functioning, when the body is in need of higher metabolic function to meet these short-term demands, an area in the brain called the hypothalamus starts a series of reactions in the body that act like a cascade system to get the body what it needs fast. The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is responsible for getting the body active and ready to go in stressful situations. The SNS leads the adrenal glands to release stress hormones, or norepinephrine, epinephrine, glucocorticoids, and androgens (Copstead & Banasik, 2013; Marieb & Hoehn, 2013). Glucocorticoids are hormones such as aldosterone, cortisol, cortisone, and corticosterone that affect the body’s metabolism, help maintain blood glucose and blood pressure within normal levels, and help the body fight stress (Marieb & Hoehn, 2013). As the levels of glucocorticoids, particularly cortisol, increases in the body, it sends a signal to the brain to stop the stress response (Marieb & Hoehn, 2013). The body then turns back to its normal state.
Stage 2- Resistance
If the cause of the alarm stage lasts longer than a short burst, as could happen when working on a long-term project or preparing for an exam, the body goes into the resistance stage. The SNS and adrenal glands continue to release stress hormones to encourage the body to repair itself from damage caused by the persistent stress (Copstead & Banasik, 2013). The body is in need of energy to handle the repeated stress, and it continues to release cortisol to make sure there are enough glucose, fatty acids (extracted from fat tissue), and amino acids (broken down from proteins) to meet this demand. The stress response does not stop, and the body stays in a fight-or-flight mode. The key here is that this response that is meant to be momentary does not just last a moment, but can persist for days, weeks, and months. Problems start to arise. Blood pressure increases, inflammation is affected, immune system decreases and there are more colds, flu, and infections, and problems arise with cardiovascular, brain, neural, and digestive function (Marieb & Hoehn, 2013).
Stage 3- Exhaustion
If high amounts of stress persist for months and years and becomes part of daily life, the body is not able to return to normal functioning, and it enters the exhaustion stage from which it cannot recover. At this point, the body is depleted from its resources. There has been damage done to the organs and tissues, and the person is suffering from one or various chronic conditions (Copstead & Banasik, 2013).
Causes of Stress
The top 10 causes of stress in the United States are job pressure due to co-worker tension, bosses, and work overload; money concerns from loss of a job, reduced retirement, and medical expenses; health crisis and terminal or chronic illness; relationship difficulties from divorce, death of a spouse, arguments with friends, and loneliness; poor nutrition from inadequate nutritional consumption, caffeine, processed foods, and refined sugars; media overload from television, radio, internet, e-mail, and social networking; and sleep deprivation (Statistic Brain, 2015). Stress can also result from marriage, financial instability, graduating from school, having a child, jail, relocation, lack of safety, pollution, worries, and terrorism, among many others (Copstead & Banasik, 2013; Gale, 2014; Pizzorno & Murray, 2013).
Regardless, stress is an individual response and causes of stress are specific to individuals, as is their reaction to it. In other words, no two people react the same to any given situation.
How You Can Treat Stress
There are many ways to treat stress. The goal is to calm the mind, encourage a positive mental attitude, decrease SNS activity, and instead increase parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) activity that works to turn off the stress response. This can come from making changes to your lifestyle, exercising, following a healthy diet, taking supplements, meditating, praying, doing yoga, visualization, laughter, pet or animal therapy, dance, music, art, hydrotherapy, massage, and aromatherapy, among many others (Gale, 2014; Ornish et al., 2013; Pizzorno & Murray, 2013). Seeing a psychiatrist is also helpful and a great online resources can be found at BetterHelp.
Ornish et al. (2013) indicates that stress management, in addition to diet, activity, and social support, increases telomere length. Telomeres are complexes of DNA and protein located at the ends of chromosomes, protecting and stabilizing the chromosomes. Chromosomes contain all of our genetic material, and are essential to our being. Telomeres shorten with age as well as with certain diseases, including “cancer, stroke, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis, and diabetes” (Ornish et al., 2013, p.1). In a study done on male prostate cancer patients over a five-year period, participants who had a lifestyle intervention that included diet, activity, social support, and stress management saw an increase in their telomere length, and those who had no lifestyle intervention saw a decrease in their telomere length (Ornish et al., 2013). This shows us that having a healthy diet, being active, having a supportive social network, and actively participating in stress management, not only adds years to our lives but also improves our health.
Just like the response to stress is different for everyone, so is the stress-relief method. What works for you may not work for everyone else and vice versa. The choice for the best stress management approach should be based on your preference and lifestyle. You will most likely need to try and test a variety of methods before you can identify the ones that work best for you. What is important is for you to find something that is calming, relaxing, and/or makes you feel happy.
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Buckle, J. (2003). Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils In Practice (2nd ed.). London, United Kingdom: Churchill Livingstone.
Copstead, L. E. & Banasik, J. (2013). Pathophysiology (5th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Saunders.
Gale (2014). The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, (4th Ed). Farmington Hilla, MI: Gale Cengage Learning.
Liu, S. H., Lin, T. H., & Chang, K. M. (2013). The physical effects of aromatherapy in alleviating work-related stress on elementary school teachers in Taiwan. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013(853809), 1-7. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2013/853809
Marieb, E.T., & Hoehn, K. (2013). Human Anatomy & Physiology (9th ed.). Glenview, IL: Pearson Education.
Ornish, D., Lin, J., Chan, J. M., Epel, E., Kemp, C., Weidner, G., Marlin, R., Frenda, S. J., Magbanua, M. J. M., Daubenmier, J., Estay, I., Hills, N. K., Chainani-Wu, N., Carroll P.R, & Blackburn, E. H. (2013). Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study. The Lancet. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1470-2045(13)70366-8
Pizzorno, J. E. & Murray, M. T. (2013). Textbook of Natural Medicine (4th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Churchill Livingstone.
Statistic Brain. (2015). “Stress Statistics.” Statistic Brain. Retrieved on June 30, 2016.