The Adverse Health Effects of Stress

In two other articles, we've discussed how health effects of stress can be related to our quest for social status and work recognition.

More specifically, we addressed how high stress levels are associated with a higher incidence of heart attack and cardiovascular disease, as well as the factors that research has shown can lead to increased stress in the workplace.  

We also introduced you to Sir Michael Gideon Marmot, professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London.  In addition to holding his teaching position, Sir Michael is also the author of The Status Syndrome:  How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity and past chairman of the World Health Organization's Commission on Social Determinants of Health. 

Sir Michael is a renowned researcher in the field of stress in the workplace and how it affects the status of our health and our life span.

This third article in our series on the adverse health effects of stress continues to explore the topic of stress and its impact on our overall health, wellbeing and longevity.

Work and Stress

A person's employment situation is a significant factor relating to that person's health effects of stress, especially in today's troubled economy characterized by massive layoffs, high unemployment levels and a scarcity of job opportunities. 

Steady, dependable, reliable employment engenders a comfortable feeling of safety, security and certainty, and it can bring additional meaning to our lives.  In contrast, being unemployed engenders high levels of stress which must be dealt with on an ongoing, daily basis.

Living with this type of ongoing stress has been shown to be hazardous to our health, although stress can be quite useful when it occurs only intermittently. 

Stress Can be Useful

The physiological health effects of stress - increased heart rate, faster respiration, an elevation of the blood pressure, heightened senses, faster blood clotting times, increased blood flow to the voluntary muscles, greater alertness, higher adrenaline levels and so on, are normal, automatic responses to stress. 

These health effects of stress can be invaluable in times of danger because they can heighten your focus, help you concentrate and stay alert, speed up your reaction time, increase your stamina and strength, and even hasten the healing of wounds by reducing the amount of time your blood requires to form clots.

The short-term physiological changes that are associated with a normal stress response to a suddenly-arising real or perceived danger help to provide the physical and mental capabilities you need to better deal with that temporary danger. 

Consider the following two hypothetical examples, which illustrate just how useful a stress response can be in an emergency situation.  One of these hypothetical situations could easily have occurred in the past, while the other could happen to you today.

  • Let's suppose for a moment that it's prehistoric times and you're a member of a woodland tribe. Hostile tribe members have come sneaking through the forest to kidnap your wife (we know this is a bit far-fetched, but it gets the point across). Wouldn't the increased alertness, faster reaction times, heightened senses and greater stamina and strength provided by the stress response help you defend your wife? Yes, of course, because they'll give you what you need in your moment of crisis.
  • Now, let's suppose you're driving your car down the highway at a fast pace. Suddenly, a deer darts out in front of you and freezes in your lane. Your body's stress response speeds your reaction time, allowing you to simultaneously slam on the brakes and swerve quickly enough to avoid hitting the deer. As you can see, the stress response is just as valuable today as in prehistoric times.

Chronic Stress

Under normal circumstances, the "stretch switch" automatically turns off once the danger or perceived danger abates, and all the physiological changes associated with the stress response start reverting back to their normal status. 

Unfortunately, however, the fast-paced life we lead today prevents our "stress switches" from ever shutting off completely. 

As a result, the increased heart rate, faster clotting times, higher blood pressure and other physiological changes that exist under stress not only increase our likelihood of experiencing heart disease, but promote thrombosis - the formation of life-threatening blood clots within the blood vessels.

Much like depression, long term health effects of stress can be difficult to measure and evaluate.  Unfortunately, research indicates that both stress and depression are probably more perilous for your long-term health and longevity than elevated cholesterol levels, the dangers of which we hear about on a regular basis.

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