During a crisis, there is usually an initial period of intense stress for any individual involved. The body and mind achieve a heightened state of alert to deal with the situation. The heart pounds, chest heaves, and muscles tighten. Senses sharpen. Time slips into slow motion. The body becomes impervious to pain. This is the normal reaction. The human body responds to a stressful situation by flooding the body with endorphins and adrenaline to deal with the situation at hand. After the initial shock wears off, the body eventually returns to a state of equilibrium. However, when there is a stressful situation that is prolonged – whether it is a life-threatening illness, a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or some other ongoing event – the stress usually doesn’t end right away. In fact, the bigger the catastrophe, the more likely the stress will continue for a long time.
Indeed, after a major calamity, the body must continue to deal with the fallout of the situation. Unfortunately, long-term stress is harmful. Studies have shown that prolonged stress can be very damaging to both body and mind. But any person dealing with a major life crisis cannot just remove him/herself from the situation and stop the cause of the stress. A person dealing with a major illness or a major disaster simply cannot walk away from the cause of the stress. So what is a person to do? How does one cope with prolonged stress?
Let’s start by admitting that ignoring the stress – deciding to put a brave face and simply slog through it or tough it out – is not a good approach. Prolonged stress can be problematic, painful and even life-threatening… perhaps even more threatening than the initial cause of the stress. Persistent stress can attack the mind, brain, heart, lungs, blood vessels and muscles, chronically over or under-activating them. And it doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. Chronic stress affects different people different ways. Here are 24 ways that prolonged stress can hurt the mind and body.
Prolonged stress can:
- Increase the risk for depression and anxiety.
- Increase hyperactivity in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system, particularly for people who are perfectionists, which then disrupts normal levels of serotonin, the brain chemical critical for feelings of well-being.
- Increase the pumping action and rate of the heart, while at the same time causing the arteries to constrict, restricting blood flow to the heart.
- Alter heart rhythms which increases the risk for serious arrhythmias in people with existing heart rhythm disturbances.
- Cause the blood to become stickier in preparation for potential injury.
- Increase the release of cortisol, a glucocorticoid, which is a major stress hormone. Along with insulin, cortisol generates stress-related cravings of comfort foods that lessen the impact of stress on the body. Carbohydrates specifically increase levels of tryptophan and large neutral amino acids, which increases the production of serotonin, a chemical messenger that improves mood and performance under stress. This then becomes a vicious cycle in which cortisol creates cravings for foods that improve mood but also boost abdominal fat which then leads to weight gain and also increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
- Increase cravings for high-calorie foods which causes the brain to make chemicals called endogenous opioids, neurotransmitters that help protect against the harmful effects of stress by slowing activity of a brain process called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which weakens the stress response. Repeating this process leads to changes in the brain that can then lead to compulsive overeating.
- Increase the thickness of the intima-medial, a measure of the arteries that signifies worsening blood vessel disease.
- Release inflammatory markers into the bloodstream, which can worsen heart disease and increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
- Increase high blood pressure, particularly in men. Repeated spikes in blood pressure over time can injure the inner lining of blood vessels.
- Increase the risk for stress cardiomyopathy, a severe but reversible heart dysfunction in which there is chest pain, and EKGs and echocardiograms indicate a heart attack, but further tests show no underlying obstructive coronary artery disease.
- Increase the risk for acute coronary syndrome (ACS), a collection of symptoms that indicate a heart attack or approaching heart attack.
- Increase risk for triggering ACS, particularly in people with heart disease.
- Affect the immune system by lowering the white blood cell count, making the body more susceptible to infection. It also makes the body more vulnerable to colds and, once sick, makes the symptoms worse.
- Disrupt the digestive system, irritating the large intestine and causing diarrhea, constipation, cramping, and bloating.
- Be strongly related to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (or spastic colon), in which the large intestine becomes irritated, and its muscular contractions are spastic instead of smooth which results in many digestive problems and pain.
- Increase peptic ulcers in people who are predisposed.
- Exacerbate diabetes in people with the disease by impairing the person’s ability to manage the disease effectively.
- Intensify chronic pain caused by arthritis and other conditions.
- Cause tension-type headaches and cause them to occur more frequently. Research suggests that people who get tension headaches may have a biological predisposition for translating stress into muscle contractions.
- Cause awakening during non-rapid eye movement sleep which in turn can result in insomnia. Lack of sleep is related to many other illnesses.
- Increase adrenal hormone levels or resistance in the arteries in expectant mothers, which may interfere with normal blood flow to the placenta. Ongoing maternal stress during pregnancy is linked to a higher risk for miscarriage, lower birth weight babies, and an increased incidence of premature births. It can also influence the way in which the baby’s brain and nervous system develop, resulting in a higher rate of crying and lower attention span.
- Interfere with a child’s ability to learn. Long-term exposure to excessive amounts of the stress hormone, cortisol, is related to a shrinking of the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. It is unknown whether the shrinking is reversible.
- Worsen numerous skin conditions, including hives, psoriasis, acne, and rosacea, and it is one of the most common causes of eczema. Prolonged stress can also cause unexplained itching.
Clearly the impact of prolonged stress on the body can be even worse than whatever was causing the stress in the first place. Given how damaging chronic stress can be, it is imperative to find ways to cope or relieve ongoing stress. Here are some suggestions, including many recommended by the Mayo Clinic.
Ten Techniques for dealing with Chronic Stress
Don’t underestimate the power of the mind to diffuse stress. Positive thinking helps the mind to better cope with stressful situations which in turn alleviates the physical impact to the body. Basically, this follows the old saying that “If you don’t mind, then it won’t matter.” Here are some positive thoughts to help combat stress.
- This too shall pass.
- It’s not a perfect world.
- This is not personal.
- There is an opportunity in every problem.
Faith and religion help people to have a clearer purpose in life and that allows better stress management. Belief in a higher power reassures that everything – even the bad things –is part of a plan that is for the good. Faith affirmations might include:
- If God leads me to it, He can lead me through it.
- Let go and let God.
There are many techniques that help with relaxation. Try to visualize yourself in a tranquil place. Focus on gaining control of your breathing. Repeat a positive or helpful quote or word. Remove yourself from a noisy place. Use your imagination to create a ‘happy’ scene in your mind. Smell good aromas such a baking cookies or floral scents. Have a hearty laugh. Have a good cry (which may sound ridiculous to men but makes perfect sense to women). Laughter and crying can both be cathartic. These types of relaxation techniques help lower high blood pressure.
Remove some demands and prioritize what is most important to alleviate pressure.
Find time to exercise. Bounce on a rebounder or jog in place. Climb stairs or use a stair-stepper. Walk around the block. Shadowbox. Do push-ups, sit-ups, and other upper body work with light weights. Exercise releases endorphins which help to improve mood. Exercise also helps to reduce blood pressure, burn calories (in case of poor or over eating), and increase circulation which increases oxygen throughout the body.
Meditation calms the mind by focusing all attention on one thing such as breathing or looking at a candle flame or hearing running water in a fountain.
Stress management strategies
To diffuse or redirect stress, it helps to follow the four As of stress management: avoid, alter, adapt or accept.
A strong social network
Family, friends and peers help relieve stress by providing shoulders to lean on and people who will listen.
A support group
A support group, run by a religious leader or mental health professional, provides an outlet to vent pain, frustration and strong emotions.
Acupuncture helps people with heart failure, but has no effect on blood pressure.
While some of these activities may seem trivial or silly in the face of a major tragedy, they can also be therapeutic. When facing an ongoing stressful situation, it’s important to remember that stress can kill. Even while dealing with the situation, find time to relieve the strain and anxiety from the traumatic event.
Quote of the Week
“Give your stress wings and let it fly away.” Terri Guillemets
© 2012 – 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.