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Stress ... Why It's Making You Sick

woman's face looking stressed

— Photo by Aurora/Getty Images

Why is stress so insidious?

The stress response is an archaic mechanism designed to help primitive man survive a sudden physical threat—an animal attack or a raid by warriors. It’s a powerful physiological response meant to kick in briefly while the body prepares to flee or to fight the danger.

But this atavistic system has been dragged into the 21st century, says Louise Hawkley, associate director of the Social Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago. “What our brains often interpret as a threat today—a job loss or problems with the mortgage—can trigger the stress response and keep triggering it” until it actually harms the body.

When the brain perceives a threat, potent stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, creating a surge of strength. Glucose (sugar) levels spike to provide energy. The heart rate jumps, and blood pressure climbs so that blood moves faster and with greater force to deliver oxygen to the muscles.

To allow the body to channel all effort toward fleeing or fighting, other hormones suppress systems that don’t directly aid those actions, including the immune, digestive, growth and reproduction functions. The body remains in this state of alert until the brain is convinced the threat is over.

If this massive reaction occurs repeatedly, Hawkley says, over time it wreaks havoc on the delicate hormonal responses that regulate the body’s various systems.

Elevated hormones, for example, rev up the cardiovascular system, straining the heart and blood vessels and increasing cholesterol and plaque—changes that can lead to hardening of the arteries, stroke and heart attacks.

When chronic stress disturbs the body’s correct hormonal settings, other problems can ensue, including colitis and bowel problems, and infections that breach a faulty immune system.

One study, led by Cohen, shows that people living with one of two major “stressors”—unemployment and underemployment—were five times more likely to develop colds than the unstressed.

Still, people can learn to cope, experts say, and that helps mitigate the effects of stress on health.

The first step is to “learn to notice your stress signals,” says Rajita Sinha, M.D., director of the Yale Stress Center in New Haven, Conn. Key indicators, she says, include a faster heartbeat, a drop in energy, changes in appetite, teeth grinding, tension in the arms, back or neck, tightness in the stomach, and sleep problems. “Attend to these signs early,” she says, “and find ways to cope that work for you.”

The brain is the arbiter of stress, and what sends one person into an anxious funk or even prompts thoughts of suicide hardly affects another. What’s key is that the brain can be distracted, calmed by activities that engage and provide enjoyment—such as reading a great mystery, jogging with the dog or playing the trombone.

Dealing with stress “is not about moving away from the negative, it’s about moving toward the positive, doing things that make us happy,” says Douglas Mennin, associate professor of psychology at Yale and director of the department’s Anxiety and Mood Services. He suggests engaging in activities that turn the mind away from stress, “not just on the weekend” but as a regular routine.

A crucial strategy, experts say, is to stay connected to friends and relatives. Find emotional support. Loneliness is a major stressor that can heighten every other problem.

And remember that many people are resilient and adaptable, Mennin adds.

Karen Gaebelein says she’s trying to exercise more and see her friends. She has found satisfaction volunteering in a senior community. “I have not lost hope yet,” she says.

Barbara Basler is a senior editor at the AARP Bulletin.

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