“I am so stressed out!” How many times have you heard friends, family members, co-workers, even strangers make this sad statement? In fact, how often have you found yourself realizing that it’s getting harder to cope with increasing responsibilities or relentless demands for your time and attention? Whether or not you realize it, you may be headed for unwanted membership in a club you never with to join. It’s the Society of Stress-Related Diseases.
According to a journal article by Liu, et al. (2017), “Stress is the common risk factor of 75%–90% diseases, including the diseases which cause the foremost morbidity and mortality.”[i] It’s worth repeating: up to 90% of debilitating diseases that can become killers have their origins in chronic stress!
4 stress-related disease types
Many disorders result from cumulative stress. The four most common types are
- Cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure and clogged blood vessels
- Metabolic diseases such as diabetes and liver disorders
- Psychological/neurological disorders such as depression, Parkinson’s disease and cognitive decline
The incidence of these diseases is on the rise, and it’s not just because people are living longer—though many of these conditions can emerge from aging-related cell oxidation and genomic breakdown. The problem is that all of them are alarmingly arising at younger ages, which aging alone cannot explain. AS the Liu paper points out, “With rapid development of science and technology, as well as economy and strong social competition, the nature of stress has changed dramatically.” This is ironic, since technologic progress was supposed to free up more leisure time, and leisure activities are one of the best antidotes[ii] to counteract daily stress. Not only have the external and internal stimuli, or stressors, that trigger the fight-or-flight response grown both on and off the job, it appears we have less de-stressing time available to slow that response down. The upshot is, those high-gear biochemicals remain in our bodies for a prolonged period way beyond what we are programmed for. This is chronic stress.
The impact of chronic stress
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning were alive today, her Sonnet 43 to her beloved Robert Browning might have a startlingly different theme: “How does stress harm me? Let me count the ways…” She might well have enumerated the following ways in which a chain of big and small daily stressors impacts the body over time:
- Repeated surges in heart rate and blood pressure can lead to heart attacks
- Increased production of stomach acid can raise the chance of heartburn
- Stress hormones present for long periods cause inflammation, which ultimately changes the biochemical and metabolic balance and damages tissues
- Other digestive changes can lead to stomach and intestinal problems
- Muscle tension may cause backaches and headaches
- Fertility problems, low sex drive and erectile dysfunction stem from psychological as well as biochemical stress
- Psychological/emotional problems stem from biochemical changes in the brain and nervous system
- Sugars released into the bloodstream increase the risk of diabetes
- The immune system becomes impaired over time, weakening defenses against infection and diseases like cancer more
No doubt Robert would have been very alarmed to think Elizabeth was in harm’s way!
Getting out of harm’s way by reducing stress
Preventing the diseases that befall a person in prolonged stress involves a two-pronged strategy. First, reduce exposure to the stressors; and second, improve your coping skills.
The first part of the strategy is challenging. Many stressors are unavoidable: financial troubles, relationship woes, work demands, caregiving for a sick family member, exposure to environmental toxins, and many more factors can’t simply be switched off. However, open communication and better time/budget management can help so those around you are better informed of your situation (help is on the way!) and you can counteract stress with more down time.
The second part of the strategy involves your lifestyle and inner self. Research continually proves that the negative impact of stress can is softened by better nutrition, regular exercise, calming breaths, positive outlook/attitude of gratitude, having fun, and taking “be nice to me” breaks during the day. These things really work. They slow down the rampage of stress hormones and replenish the body’s natural resources and programs.
It’s not possible to prevent all diseases. There are countless reasons why we become ill. What’s essential is to recognize what you can do to prevent chronic stress in order to reduce the odds of stress-related diseases—and then do it!
NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing pelvic pain, or have any other health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.
[i] Liu YZ, Wang YX, Jiang CL. Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017; 11: 316. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5476783/
[ii] Qian XL, Yarnal CM, Almeida DM. Does leisure time moderate or mediate the effect of daily stress on positive affect? An examination using eight-day diary data. J Leis Res. 2014; 46(1): 106–124.