November 12, 2016
Stress and the Human Body: Part II
BY Mary Mahoney
In this two-part series on stress, we look at some new, eye-opening discoveries about that very basic phenomenon. What does stress do to us and what do we do about it?
In Part I, we looked at some surprising results from new research. The bottom line is, anxiety and tension are worse for our health than we thought, but the medical community has yet to take stress seriously, as a dangerous condition.
When the hormones adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, they create problematic side effects. Despite the documented physiological manifestations of chronic or acute stress, however, there is little systematic available to prevent or treat stress.
The second part of this series on stress will look at whom is most affected and why, and offer some tips on stress management.
In the latest version of its annual “Stress in America” report, which reflects data from 2014, The American Psychological Association shows that money worries are a key cause of stress. “The United States is the world’s richest country, yet our economic inequality is among the highest in the world,” it says. “The Great Recession may have officially ended, but most American households face stagnant wages and increasing debt — many Americans are actually considered to be poorer than they were a decade ago.”
An APA report from 2011 shows that people older than 67 report the lowest levels of stress. They also cope with it differently. Seniors read more and pray more. Millennials and Gen Xers are more likely to smoke, go online or listen to music instead.
Stress as we know it today didn’t even exist until relatively recently. In the late 1800s, Harvard Medical School alumnus Walter Cannon observed stress responses, leading to his being credited for the expression “flight or fight.”
An interesting piece on NPR revisited research done in the 1930s by endocrinologist Hans Selye, who wrote many books on the subject. Selye observed that regardless of the type of stressor, his experiments revealed the same type of physical damage and disease.
Stress affects different people in different ways, and while some stress is okay and even motivating and energizing for some, too much or chronic stress can have lethal consequences.
A Wall Street Journal article from 2013 reported that more women than men are under stress and they suffer more symptoms such as headaches and upset stomach. Working women reported strain from bias and a lack of career opportunity. Working moms added factors such as having to do the lion’s share of the housework and child care. Indeed, it’s usually the moms who get calls for emergencies, to cook dinner and to coordinate all the kids’ activities, meaning working moms are “on” 24/7.
A University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences report published in August 2016 sheds new light on how stress, depression and other mental states can alter organ function, and show that there is an anatomic basis for psychosomatic illness. The research also provides a concrete neural substrate that may help explain why meditation and certain exercises such as yoga and Pilates can be so helpful in modulating the body’s responses to physical, mental and emotional stress.
In issues spanning skin problems, a heart attack, hives and insomnia, we may not know that stress is the cause. But research is finally catching up to – and reflecting – that possibility.
So why isn’t a stress assessment part of our annual physical? Why is stress management not prescribed as part of our daily routine, like using fluoride toothpaste or taking blood pressure meds?
Indeed, there is no better time than now to take stress seriously. An October study published by the APA reports that even the 2016 presidential election is causing significant stress for more than half of Americans.
But how do we relax? Worrying about how to get rid of stress can be, well, stressful. Meditation is not for everyone. Rewiring your brain sounds daunting.
However, we found some ideas, both traditional and of the envelope-pushing variety, that we wanted to share. For example, the AARP outlines case studies of real people in real situations and what they did to combat stress. Gardening, meditation or exercise seem to work, backed by “proof it works” studies that shows these approaches helped.
Likewise, the American Heart Association suggests strategies like self-talk, with specific examples of how to turn anxiety-inducing negative, hopeless thoughts into positive mantras, and replacing “I can’t do this” with “I will do the best I can.” There is also a list of quick, emergency stress-stoppers like hugging a loved one or going for a brisk walk.
An artcle published in Harvard Health Pubications talks about the benefits of mindful meditation, which doesn’t only – or necessarily – involve sitting cross-legged for hours. Rather, meditation is a way to reposition your thinking.
The goals include harnessing positive thoughts, making problems appear more manageable and finding a little core of peace to better handle all that life throws at us. Stress reduction must become a daily habit.
Along similar lines, the Anxiety and Depression Society of America has published an interesting article on exercise and stress, with data to back up its opinion. There are practical tips, too, such as safely exercising in cold weather so exercise becomes part of a regular, year-round routine. Other tips include becoming active in your community, perhaps through volunteering or by injecting humor into your day, as well as setting small, tangible daily goals.
An ABC news report discussed the importance of time management – planning ahead and being more organized to avoid that overwhelmed, panicky feeling.
There are not many conclusive studies on stress and nutrition (other than ones linking stress to over- or under-eating.) But there are many claims that green tea, which is rich in the L-theanine compound, has a calming effect.
Ironically, an article in July 2016 in the Boston Globe titled Doctors Need Help with Stress, Burnout describes just how physicians themselves have high levels of stress, starting during their years in medical school and residency.
The news-medical.net site reported in September 2016 of a long-term study to be undertaken by NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine called “Fit Physicians,” with the goal of promoting wellness activities to medical students.
Hopefully, some of the advice doctors will be getting will carry over to their patients as well.