While death is an extreme result of stress-related illness, women are particularly susceptible to developing disease in response to stress--from depression and anxiety disorders to abdominal fat and colds.
What’s Going on Inside of Me?
Although there’s no solid evidence that filled-to-the-brim lifestyles and devastating life events cause cancer, heart disease, or even stomach ulcers, it’s our response to stress that is toxic. Even though individual physical and emotional reactions to stress vary, the results are similar. A stress overload activates areas of your brain that then send involuntary impulses to organs elsewhere in your body. You can blame your general adaptation reflex — an involuntary series of physical reactions — as well as your ancestors for your biological inability to handle excess stress without getting sick. When you become frightened, your body switches into its emergency “fight or flight” mode. This is a completely natural, normal response involving your endocrine system, your autonomic nervous system, the hypothalamus in your brain, and your limbic system.
The size of a grape, your hypothalamus takes care of a multitude of responsibilities. Located in the center of your brain and linked to your pituitary gland, it stores hormones and reigns over your endocrine system, the network of glands all over your body. The hypothalamus sends messages to your nervous system and communicates directly with its neighbors in the brain. You can envision this structure as the ultimate link between your mind and body. The hypothalamus turns on the tap of your physical sensations when you respond to something emotional, whether in fear, love, anger, frustration, or anxiety. These intangible sensations soon become quite tangible as your body reacts.
Some researchers have called the hypothalamus “the master gland,” because it produces at least nine different hormones triggering almost all of the other glands in your body to swing into action or quiet down. Extreme fear, for example, affects the body in many different ways. Your pupils will widen to let in more light. You will experience an increase in alertness because of more neurotransmitters in your brain. Your adrenal glands will begin to pump more adrenaline and other hormones into your bloodstream. Your heart races, your blood pressure rises, your muscles tense. Your liver starts converting starches to sugars for energy. Digestion slows. Experts have even determined that your blood’s clotting powers will be enhanced during stressful situations. Sweat production increases and the hair on your body may feel prickly and actually stand on end. All these physical reactions were designed to save your life. Your body is getting ready to defend itself. But these reactions are no longer useful in modern life and can actually be harmful if you keep yourself in such an alert state for too many hours each day.
Not surprisingly, a daily regimen of racing heartbeat, pulsing blood, tensed muscles, undigested food stuck in your stomach, and elevated levels of hormones coursing through your circulatory system pose all kinds of potential health problems. Take the hormone cortisol, for instance. It is released under stress to inhibit inflammation at the site of any potential wounds, yet it is unlikely that you will need the assistance of cortisol. Your boss isn’t really going to inflict bodily harm on you if you make a mistake. She may scream or fume or threaten disciplinary action, of course, but that cortisol coursing through your veins, getting ready to heal cuts, abrasions, or bruises from a real fight, isn’t helping you at all. In fact, it’s hurting you, because cortisol can boost your blood pressure and lead to hypertension.
Too much stress also affects your immune system, weakening it and making you more susceptible to colds, coughs, and infections. It has been traced as the culprit in flare-ups of arthritis and asthma. Your urinary tract can also be affected. There is a natural balance of friendly and unfriendly organisms that normally co-exist in our digestive and urinary systems. Constant anxiety can destroy this immunological balance, however, leading to an overgrowth of the harmful bacteria and an infection.
While response to fears may be wider known for causing your body to stress, it’s the wear and tear from a bad lifestyle, from sleep deprivation, from continued tension and anxiety, and from lack of control of our lives, that can cause long-term problems. For example, Dr. Nelson explains, “When the spine is stressed it becomes rigid, which is a precursor for arthritis.”
Dr. Nelson also believes that a little hassle can do some good.“A challenging life — good stress if you will — mobilizes our bodies to promote adaptation and improves memory, immune function, and metabolism,” she says. “It’s when stress is unrelenting and ongoing that it affects both behavior and health.”
Repeated surges of adrenaline can damage blood vessels in the heart and brain and harden the arteries, while chronically raised levels of cortisol have been linked to mineral loss in bone, food cravings, the conversion of lean muscle mass to fat around the abdomen and on the walls of blood vessels, and suppression of the immune system.
However, before you panic that your high-octane lifestyle is leading to irrevocable health problems, heed this: These effects are eventually reversible. Extreme prolonged stress may permanently damage the brain, but it takes a lot to do it. As Dr. Nelson explains, “We all have a degree of control over our lifestyles, or can have, and can do a lot of things to counteract stress: social support, sleep, exercise, and good diet.”
Learning to Cope
To get some control into your life and tame the stress that could be making you sick, a dual approach is recommended. First, it is necessary to change your behavior so you can slow the emotional pace of your life. Second, learn how to turn off your general adaptation reflex. You can do this by using exercise and relaxation techniques. The most important thing you can do is allow yourself regular down time. Leisure time is a necessity, not a reward for having completed all your tasks. Deep psychic benefits come from forgetting your chores and what time it is.
For example, take a magazine into the bathroom, fill the tub, climb in, and relax. The leisurely soak will give you the strength to do more later. Take an hour or half-hour to be by yourself each day. A caution, however: Even leisure activities offer little refreshment if you run through them, squeezing in a quick bath, a little tennis, racing to the fast food restaurant with kids, or are always considering what must be done next. The key is to plan — don’t wait for free time to suddenly appear. The only way to create time for yourself is to take it away from some other activity. Personal time for refueling and staying healthy will never be available unless you plan for it purposefully.
As our critical knowledge of the mind-body connection grows, it becomes even more apparent that you are your own best weapon in defending yourself against stress-related illness.
Become a more active listener to the signals your own body may be sending. Don’t deny or ignore symptoms of stress. A consultation with your doctor may be advisable. It may be that she will determine that the symptoms are indeed related to stress and reaffirm the importance of taking your leisure time seriously. It might be that the stress you experience at a particular time in your life is overwhelming. Don’t be reticent about seeking professional help at those times. Such a move can be life-saving.
The Best Stress-Busters
• Set goals for yourself. This may mean reordering your daily priorities. When you give a little of yourself to everything, you commit a great deal of yourself to nothing. If you work, try to take work breaks that remove you physically or mentally from the office. If possible, don’t take office work home with you.
• Insist on help with regular chores. Learn how to delegate without guilt. Basic changes aimed at lightening your load can ease your stress considerably.
• Take advantage of your natural body rhythms. There may be 24 hours in a day, but your mood and energy level can’t keep up with the clock all day. The sooner you figure out when your prime time is, the less overwhelmed you will feel. Most people are at their peak between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., but you know your own body best. By adjusting your routine slightly you may be able to eliminate some of the stress from your life.
• Learn how to say no. For many women, turning down someone who asks for a chunk of your time is never easy. It is nice to be needed, but adding extra burdens can wreak havoc on your day. These suggestions may help. (1) Say no fast, before they can anticipate a yes. Hedging with “I don’t know” or “Let me think about it” only complicates your life, adding stress because you’ll have to call back and beg off later. (2) Be as polite and pleasant as possible. (3) Offer a counterproposal. If you can’t take on a complete responsibility for a new project, consider sharing with someone else.
• Locate the source of your stress. Sometimes women don’t stop to focus on exactly why they feel overwhelmed. If you can analyze your day’s load of stress, you may be able to pinpoint a particular problem and deal with the stress more effectively. For instance, the next time someone in the salon presents you with several problems simultaneously and each one is dubbed an emergency, think before you panic. Instead of agonizing alone, go back to your boss and ask which one should be done first, second, and third. The more information you can gather and the more support you can pull together, the easier it will be to cope with the stress.
• Exercise. Up to three hours per week of activity, such as running or yoga, generally create a sense of well-being, possibly by stimulating the release of key brain chemicals. Even one hour per week has been shown to reduce stress levels.
• Eat the right foods. Try to eat balanced meals including chicken, fish, and lean red meat, as protein has been clinically shown to increase energy and lower stress by keeping the blood-sugar level balanced. Skip the simple sugars and starches (chips, cakes, and ice cream). The spike in blood sugar and insulin they cause, combined with your already high cortisol levels, can lead you to eat more as well as put you at risk of insulin insensitivity and diabetes. Avoid coffee and other caffeinated food and drinks. They not only increase levels of certain stress hormones, but also mimic their effects in the body (increasing heart rate, for example).
• Load up on vegetables, fruits, and other high-fiber foods. The nutrients they provide lend an extra dollop of protection against the immune-sapping effects of chronic stress.
• Choose complex carbohydrates. Their steady release of sugar not only keeps your blood sugar levels steady, but also induces the brain to release more of the mood-enhancing chemical seratonin.