There has been extensive research over the years investigating the effects of stressful life experiences on physical and mental health. Today, science tells us that exposure to stress disrupts the immune system, the autonomic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (Kemeny 2003). As a result, stress increases the risk for several health conditions, including:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic pain
- Human Immunodeficiency virus/AIDS
- Headaches (Slavich, 2016)
Fight of flight response:
The work of Walter Cannon in the 1930s and subsequent research on his theory of fight or flight response helped us understand the physiological process that takes place in the body during stressful experiences. We now know that stress starts in the brain, and it remains the central organ in this process that decides what is stressful and what physiological and behavioural responses to initiate in the body (McEwan 2008). However, the brain is not exempt from being a victim of chronic and acute stress as it responds with chemical and structural changes within itself (McEwen 2008).
It is widely understood that the fight or flight response has a major role in survival. This physiological mechanism prepares humans and animals to respond to a physical threat in the environment. In order to be well-prepared for an impending threat, the body turns off or slows down some of its functions, such as digestion, immune system, or sex drive (Kemeny 2004).
On the other hand, it increases the heart rate, respiration, and releases large quantities of cortisol and adrenaline to have ample available energy (McEwan 2008, Hadany et al 2006). Despite the fact that it is an impeccable system, its prolonged overuse may increase the chances of developing the above listed chronic health conditions (Slavich, 2016).
Although, there are many unanswered questions to understand the exact mechanism of our intricate human body processing stressful life experiences, let’s examine some of the health conditions that may arise as a result of exposure to prolonged stress.
Headaches associated with stress tend to be due to ongoing daily irritations, rather than a significant, traumatic life event. Stress may influence the body in the follow ways:
- As a predisposing factor to headaches
- It may transform occasional headaches into chronic headaches
- It may worsen the pain and the overall headache episode (Brannon et al.2021)
Those with higher stress levels were found to be more likely to become ill with cold viruses, especially those with severe, chronic stress (? 1 month), however, acute stress (? 1 month) did not increase likelihood of infections (Cohen, 2005). It is interesting to note, sociable and agreeable people were found to be less likely to be infected (Cohen, 2003). What is more, perceived stress can double the likelihood of infection, and can extend progression and reduce the body’s response to treatment (Kopnisky, Stoff and Rausch, 2004).
Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)
A large-scale study, examining 15,000 people identified the following stressors that significantly contributed to heart attack:
- Workplace and home stress
- Financial problems
- Major life events in the past year
- External locus of control (Rosengren et al., 2004)
These individuals may have had CVD already, but the above psychological stressors made a substantial contribution to the onset of a heart attack. What is more, the immune system creating an inflammation in the body, and the release of stress hormones such as corticoids can lead to the development of coronary artery disease (Steptoe et al. 2007).
Recommendations for prevention
Stressful life circumstances are unavoidable, and thus in order to support the body and lessen the impact of stress researchers recommend to aim to:
- Improve sleep quality and quantity
- Have good social support
- Have positive outlook on life
- Have positive self-esteem
- Maintain a healthy diet
- Avoid smoking
- Engage in regular, moderate physical activity (McEwan, 2008)
Author: Katalin Mezei, BA (Hons) Psych & Crim, G. Dip Psych, MSc Health Psych
Co-Author: Vivian Jarrett
Katalin Mezei is a Provisional Psychologist now based in Brisbane, having completed my undergraduate and Master’s training in the United Kingdom. My aim is to help people identify my clients’ core values and help them live according to them.
To make an appointment with Katalin please call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422 or M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129
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