Chronic Stress Can Wreak Havoc on Caregivers' Health

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Stress can definitely rear its head this time of year. Preparing for the visits by relatives, finishing all of the shopping for presents, completing the Christmas cards, thinking about New Year’s resolutions and worrying about the “fiscal cliff” can definitely set you on edge. And when you add in caregiving for someone with dementia, your stress level can easily skyrocket! And that’s not good for you!


    And even when the holidays are over, you're probably continuing to experience chronic stress, which isn't a good "present" to give yourself. “When you’re under stress, your body reacts by releasing hormones that produce the ‘fight-or-flight’ response,” states the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health. “Your heart rate and breathing rate go up and blood vessels narrow (restricting the flow of blood).” While occasional stress is thought to be normal for the body since it’s a coping mechanism, long-term stress can cause serious damage to your health. For instance, long-term stress can cause a person to develop numerous health problems, including digestive disorders, headaches and sleep disorders.

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    A 2007 review of the scientific literature on the relationship between stress and disease by a Carnegie Mellon University team also noted that the strongest evidence that stress contributes to the development of a disease is in the research on depression, although chronic stress contributes to cardiovascular illnesses, such as coronary heart disease. These researchers suggest that there may be two pathways for stress to cause and contribute to a disease. The first is behavioral, since people who are stressed don’t sleep as well, eat unhealthy foods, smoke more, don’t exercise and don’t follow their doctor’s orders in relation to medical treatment. Additionally, stress sets off a response in the endocrine system, releasing hormones that effect many biological systems, such as the immune system. Effects of stress on regulation of immune and inflammatory processes have the potential to influence depression, infectious, autoimmune, and coronary artery disease, and at least some (e.g., viral) cancers," the authors stated.

    Chronic stress also can lead to weight gain. “Stress will actually make you pack on the pounds,” Dr. Mehmet Oz reported. He noted that belly size is related to stress. Chemicals in the brain are released to the adrenal glands, which, in turn, changes the way that fat in the omentum (which is a fatty layer of tissue that is located inside the belly) grows. This fat is close to the organs and is their best energy source. According to, the fat from the omentum travels rapidly to the liver, where it is processed and then shipped to the arteries where it is linked to higher levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind). Furthermore, more omentum fat is linked to having less adiponectin, which is a stress- and inflammation-reducing chemical that’s related to the hunter-controlling hormone leptin.

  • So what should you do to control chronic stress? NCCAM recommends doing what you can to trigger the relaxation response, which lowers the heart rate and blood pressure as well as decreases oxygen consumption and levels of stress hormones. The center also offers a tip sheet entitled, “5 Things to Know About Relaxation Techniques,” which includes the following:

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    • Relaxation techniques are generally considered safe. However, there is limited evidence of usefulness for specific health conditions.
    • There are several types of relaxation exercises. These include progressive relaxation, guided imagery, biofeedback, self-hypnosis and deep breathing exercises.
    • Relaxation techniques often include both breathing and focused attention so you can experience both physical and mental peace.
    • Most relaxation techniques can be learned without formal instruction and self-administered.
    • Relaxation techniques shouldn’t be used as a replacement for convention care or in order to postpone making an appointment with a doctor about a medical situation.

    Dr. Oz suggests several specific tips to lower your stress level:

    • Use passion flower extract to help relieve stress.
    • Use imagery that lets you envision a peaceful setting.
    • Listen to calming music. (My personal favorite music to relax by is R. Carlos Nakai’s Canyon Trilogy. This link is to Song of the Morning Star)
    • Use acupressure on the point on the inside of the wrist, which can help relieve stress.

    I’d encourage you to adopt these techniques to reduce chronic stress levels during the holidays and then continue to find time to do them when caregiving. They can make a big difference in how you feel mentally and physically.

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost: (nd.) Stress & weight gain.

    National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. (2012). 5 things to know about relaxation techniques for stress.

    Potts, J. (2007). Stress contributes to range of chronic diseases, Carnegie Mellon psychologist says. Carnegie Mellon University. (2009). When it comes to body fat, it’s all about location.

Published On: December 14, 2012