Can Stress Cut Short Your Life?
Personal catastrophes occur on a daily basis but does stress actually do us any real harm? Sufficient evidence is now available to point to stress having an effect on health, but there has always been a lingering uncertainty as to whether stress can lead to an early grave.
Anna Phillips and Douglas Carroll, two health psychologists from the University of Birmingham, UK, have taken stock of the evidence that links stress to illness and stress to mortality. Their review is published in the February edition of The Psychologist. The authors point to a situation of good links between stress and illness but conflicting evidence in the association between stress and mortality. The reason, they say, is because not only is stress measured in different ways, it is not always the case that stress is bad for us. This presents a puzzle that researchers have yet to solve.
Two approaches to the measurement of stress predominate. The first relies on self reports from individuals' as to how they feel stress affects them. The second focuses on exposure to stressful life events. Self report measures are easy and popular, but as the authors point out, they have their weaknesses. For example, older people are not as used to thinking of themselves as feeling stressed and in some blue-collar environments the term ‘stress' is something that may not even be in the person's vocabulary. Measures of life events is less prone to bias but a simple count of events deemed as stressful is also problematic due to differences in personal perceptions of stress.
What complicates the picture further is the fact that the effect of stress on the body can bring about benefits as well as problems. In the way a dose of influenza enhances antibody response and boosts the immune system, so exposure to limited levels of stress appears to have similar protective effects. However, as Phillips and Carroll also indicate, certain catastrophes can and do precipitate illness and death. Increased admissions to heart units have been recorded in various countries following earthquakes. Yet in England, emergency admissions for heart attacks increased 25 percent following defeat in the 1998 World Cup soccer match!
What are we to make of information such as this? The authors feel it is right to remain cautious about any possible links between stress and death. New models of stress are being developed in line with greater understanding of the delicate and intricate balance between psychological stress and its effects on the body. Until we know more, the jury is out.
Phillips, A., Carroll, D (2009) Heading For an Early Grave? The Psychologist. 22. 2. 122-125.